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Research books its place in the library of the future


In the digital age, cultural institutions face new technical and organisational challenges. They must improve and sometimes radically change how they acquire, store and preserve their collections as well as how they provide access to users. European research is helping them rise to the challenge.

For some years now the European Commission has been working to help cultural organisations, particularly archives, libraries and museums, develop the technological infrastructure, applications and skills to ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage can be both preserved and easily accessed in the information age. It has resulted in projects covering three main categories: ‘proof of concept’ projects, which are technology-led, service-based projects, with a greater emphasis on the institutions and preservation projects, which are developing methods for digitising and thereby preserving audiovisual resources.

The IST-backed research has some deeply challenging questions to address: for one, how can research support the role of institutions? And how can research allow the digital and institutional world to connect?

The European Library online

Suggestive answers to these questions are provided by several projects, including one possible model for the European Digital Library: The European Library. A completed project which has recently become fully operational, The European Library is set to expand considerably in 2006.

The project, set up initially by the British Library and seven other European national libraries, provides online access to an ever-growing number of national libraries (at least nine more will be added in 2006). “The key idea behind The European Library is to make it easy for libraries to participate. The technology is quite neat – it uses what a library has already got, without insisting on a particular access mechanism, so that means there are low barriers to entry,” explains The European Library’s head of Office, Jill Cousins

The European Library so far offers direct access to around a million digital items, and millions of catalogue reference records with around 25,000 users. Although the European Library actually accesses around 80 per cent of the total material digitally available from the participating national libraries, there is a need for much more to be digitised.

The European Library illustrates the enormous challenges, as well as the huge potential rewards, of the main goals of IST-funded research: to identify new technologies and services, with integration as the most important point. The new tools and services must frequently deal with, and ensure accessibility to, a huge range of content, from simple text documents to complex 3D information, such as avatar guides to archaeological sites.

Ensuring digital preservation

Nevertheless, considerable success in doing exactly that is already being achieved in the area of preservation, one of the three major research areas and obviously a principal element of the European Digital Library. Audiovisual material is particularly vulnerable to being lost through technological obsolescence: an estimated 50 to 100 million hours of European audiovisual material (from nitrate to Beta SP) currently needs archiving.

The first steps in this breathtakingly ambitious task are being taken by the PrestoSpace project. “We’ve found 60 different video formats, which gives you an idea of the scale of the problem,” says Didier Giraud, from INA, the project manager of PrestoSpace. “Each of these old formats has to be transferred so that computers can read it. Then we have hundreds of thousands of hours of radio programmes, dating back to last century, stored on shellac discs that are now near to impossible to read.”

With its partner, Media Matters, a well-known company for providing turnkey solutions to the US National Library of Congress and Yale University, PrestoSpace has developed a ‘black box’ capable of deciphering obsolete media using robotics and electronic applications – and transferring it into digital data.

Offering new services

Preservation and ‘proof of technology’ applications aside, the third research area (although naturally, all three areas tend to overlap) is more focused on working with institutions to develop services, as with the BRICKS project.

BRICKS is a technically-innovative project that works with museums, libraries and other organisations to develop new services. BRICKS’ Silvia Boi uses the ‘Greek temple’ metaphor to describe how the project operates. “The foundation provides the distributed network based on a peer-to peer architecture: each node has its own content and is connected to other nodes, allowing sharing, ” she says. “Then the pillars are the application scenarios that are built on this foundation. For example, the Living Memory application allows museum visitors to annotate a museum collection of war photographs with their memories, using innovative multimedia tools. The roof, meanwhile, plans the future of the project – the strategy for making it self-sustaining, and attracting new users, funding, and so on.”

“For maximum accessibility, we use open source software – which means that there are no technological costs for small organisations. They can simply download the software and add their own content, metadata and so on. At the same time, they become visible to our network, and can share our knowledge, so there’s high added value for them.”

Other networking projects for sharing expertise include Minerva, which links institutions on a ministerial or equivalent national level, and Calimera, which does the same with local and regional organisations, such as public libraries, museums and archives. “We have attempted to pull everything together, to establish a baseline,” says Rob Davies, Calimera’s coordinator. “So, for example, we have produced 23 guidelines on specific issues to do with digital services, from lifelong learning, to social inclusion.

Holding workshops also helps to share knowledge and raise awareness, he adds. A key issue addressed by projects such as Minerva and Calimera is helping cultural institutions to understand usability, he believes: “People are used to Ebay and Amazon, so we need to provide similar services in the cultural heritage sector.”

Like preservation and technology, services will be a vital aspect of the future European Digital Library. Of course, developing the applications to maximise these three key features remains a huge challenge, but IST-funded research projects are providing useful foundations for the future. As Rob Davies says, “Research alone cannot solve the problems, but it can certainly contribute to the solution.”

Tara Morris | alfa
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