Why the Europeana initiative is still important


Think culture. That is the tagline of Europeana, the digitalised library and archive of European culture. It seeks to represent culture, European culture, in the digital online world.
How about thinking Europeana for a moment? Six European countries initiated the digital museum in 2005: France, Poland, Germany, Italy, Spain and Hungary. Their goal was to preserve European culture online. Later, the European Commission took on the project as part of its Information Society i2010 Initiative. Currently it offers a prototype search engine, which allows to access cultural items on partner websites.

Judaica Europeana joined this network of libraries, archives and museums about a month ago. It aims at reviving the dialogue on European culture, by enriching it not only with the Jewish cultural contribution to European heritage, but as well with the component and notion of religion.

Within a rapidly developing digital online world, Europeana stands as a counterpart to Google’s efforts to digitise the books available around the globe. The site now indexes and links to about 6 million cultural items. This should improve as well their appearance in Google search results. Here the rule applies: The more an item is linked to, the higher it appears in the search machine’s queries.

All these efforts seem reasonable: By improving access to cultural items to everyone (with Internet access) the EU provides additional means of education. It lays out the cultural framework of Europe. The idea of a common European future, based on a common European background (culture and/or history?), seems obvious. Improving its visibility on the web supports this goal.

But what is European culture? What does the European Union want to preserve and what does it actually preserve through the Europeana network? Generally asked, where is this project heading?

Apart from the difficulties of defining Europe in context of European culture — whether it should be seen as continental Europe or instead limited to the borders of the European Union, for example — Europeana, in its current state as a prototype, does not yet provide the cultural diversity fundamental to the notion of European heritage. At the moment, its search results of digitised items are far from being adequate when compared with web searches through traditional search engines, eg. Google.

Later this year, though, Europeana will be relaunched with an additional 4 million assets.

Even if its value and impact is at the moment rather dwarfish, it still is an important effort. The European Union emphasises the importance of culture and its cultural richness. The current Spanish EU presidency has outlined culture as a key factor for socioeconomic development.

Europeana can help us understand and enhance dialogue within Europe, as culture is the framework society provides to each of us. And European culture excels in its manifold nature. The French library and archive Gallica lives up to its name and provides the digitised versions of full literary novels, Europe’s, though not only the EU’s cultural heritage, but also objects like the French translation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Europeana is as much a political as it is a cultural project. Copyright and funding issues have to be considered when considering the importance of an initiative as Europeana. Google – a market-related, profit-oriented [American] company – has taken on the task of digitising the available knowledge [and culture] in form of books. Market reasoning (and profit-related strategies) drives it. The approach toward culture and art differs between Europe and America, as American culture and art is mainly based on decentralised market funding, meaning sponsoring and philanthropy, while Europe relies on centralised government support to create a lively cultural scene as well as to preserve cultural heritage. Even in terms of funding, Europeana, a government/EU funded project, thinks culture, namely European culture.

Europeana’s tagline, Think culture, should be the centrepiece in its further development. This means to ask deliberately the question of culture itself and its importance to society. The European Navigator is a good example of an informative, networked knowledge platform on contemporary European history, namely “The history of a united Europe on the Internet.”

Though, thinking of culture, where is the literature, the poems, [the newspaper articles?], the music, [the films?], which belong to European culture?

The online posting of any cultural productions poses, again, the issue of copyright. In providing free examples of cultural items, the European Commission and Europeana deprive the cultural sector, namely publishing houses as well as other cultural institutions like television and cinema, from their profits. But free access is what Europeana should strive for. Asking for a fee, as happens on the website of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland cannot be the solution.

Europeana could strengthen its educational mission within the digital world with a guided introduction to a younger audience. Additionally, it is important to preserve the notion of culture in its traditional [and historical?] approach. Keeping in mind that the European Commission aims to build a (competitive) knowledge-based society, it remains that the notion of culture is not only based on knowledge and information, which is passed on, but also on physical items, everyday objects in particular, and not only art as such. Attracting more attention to the old-fashioned museums around Europe is therefore vital; it accompanies the conservation of historical items within the digital world.
Europeana’s current convenience is that in its rather miscellaneous structure, with its television cultural news reports and historic scientific publications, it reminds us of the diverse forms and shapes culture can take. It proves as well that we are constantly surrounded by culture, without often noticing.

Think culture means as well to live culture. This we shouldn’t forget in the new digital age.

Culture is the moment one sits down and has a cup of coffee and a tasty “Sernik” [cheese cake], ‘‘Strudel” or “Appeltaart” [apple cake]. It is sipping a tea and reading a newspaper. Culture is the moment we meet people from a local or foreign culture. It’s all culture. That’s why we, in Europe, need Europeana to remind us sometimes of our heritage, of our culture, of the diverse European framework we are provided and in which we live. We should also keep in mind that we are privileged to have the financial means to archive and celebrate the national and European cultural heritage we have, both in everyday’s life and in the digital world.

Flickr image from user haasje