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A digital treasure trove for Europe's cultural heritage

While digital technology can help store and preserve records of Europe’s vast yet dispersed cultural heritage, on such a huge scale it presents big cultural and practical challenges that a new system seeks to address.

The MICHAEL project has developed an electronic system to access, manage and update existing digital records of Europe's collections, including museum objects, archaeological and tourist sites, music and audiovisual archives, biographical materials, documents and manuscripts. Drawing on a system developed earlier by France's Ministry of Culture and Communication, it also allows users to enter new data.

"MICHAEL's key attraction for the public will be its multilingual online service, which will make it possible for users to search, browse and examine digital cultural collections stored on different servers throughout Europe, via a single point of access," says Pier Giacomo Sola, at Amitié, an Italian project partner based in Bologna.

Beginning in June 2004, the project assembled a consortium of public cultural institutions and private IT companies in France, Italy and the UK. It received 3 million euro from the eTen programme. Sola explains that, at the time, these were the only countries with existing digitisation projects and adequate budgets. MichaelPLUS, which began 1 June 2006, adds partners from 11 more countries that have since found funds to participate, he says.

MICHAEL culminates several progressive efforts under the eEurope Action Plan to harmonise EU Member States' programs to scan, photograph and otherwise enter cultural records into digital databases. It promotes standards, best practices and guidelines for digitisation that were originally proposed by the National Representatives Group's Lund Principles in Lund, Sweden, in 2001. It also follows up on ideas developed in the IST-funded MINERVA and MinervaPLUS projects.

Sola says MICHAEL will ease cross-research and enquiries but does not directly provide copyrighted material. "For example, if a user is looking for the Mona Lisa, he'll get a description of collections that include images of it. We provide the link to those collections."

The project's data management model is based on an eXist XML database using Apache Cocoon Web forms. An XML SDX (storage data acceleration) search engine provides a simple user interface for searching and retrieving digital records. "All the software is open source, based on the Creative Commons principle, so new countries entering the project have nothing to buy," says Sola.

Sola adds that, "Because each country in MICHAEL needs to introduce records in the local language, we have to support many languages. Our biggest task now is to extend the system to include institutional databases from the 11 countries in MichaelPLUS. Developing descriptors for cultural items from 14 countries presents a significant challenge. For example, the term 'baroque' means something very different in each language, as does the term, 'Middle Ages'. How can you choose a tag that everyone will understand? In this case, we settled on referring to the collection's exact century."

MICHAEL's website points to Europeans' growing interest in archaeological and cultural sites as proof that cultural tourism can spawn new services and jobs. It says that soaring interest in family history is creating a new market segment of genealogical tourism. To capitalise on this, the project is setting up a communication and marketing plan to target educators and researchers, as well as cultural tourism and creative businesses. "We want to contribute to development of high-quality, low-cost multimedia, books and tourism services, using digital cultural heritage resources that can be easily transformed into new products," he says.

"This will also allow us to generate funds to maintain MICHAEL's database and server, and to train workers, to ensure that the system continues to be improved and updated even if national funds run out," says Sola. The plan is to do this through a self-supporting European non-profit association with a permanent infrastructure and financing.

MICHAEL's original partners in Italy, France and the UK are testing the European data-entry interface. In Italy, MICHAEL has invited cultural institutions in 20 regions, including 77 universities, to use the system to manage their large digital libraries and databases. "Smaller organisations can set up local systems for specific needs at regional levels, for example for digital images of archaeological sites in Tuscany," says Sola. "In the discussion forum, we have got very positive feedback. But this is not something completely new to these cultural institutions. Some have been doing this on their own for ten years," says Sola.

The French and UK partners are testing public search-engine interfaces. Italy will begin similar testing in mid-September. At an international conference in November, the project will present the MICHAEL European service, containing records on 5,000 cultural collections across Europe. A public launch is planned in Italy, the UK and France in May 2007, and in the 11 countries in MichaelPLUS in November 2007.

Source: Based on information from MICHAEL

Tara Morris | alfa
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