After a failed attempt a couple of weeks ago, Europeana, the European digital library, was finally launched! (at least in some sort of beta version) Numerous prestigious European archives, libraries and musems contributed to the site and added around 2 million “digtial objects” (images, texts, sounds, videos) to Europeana. So if you fancy browsing through “world famous and hidden treasures” of the European cultural heritage, give it a try: you will find thousands of paintings and drawings, newspapers, archival papers as well as radio and TV broadcasts… And it is good to know that this website is a “prototype”. The final version will only be launched in 2010 (!) with links to over 6 million digital objects, hopefully with some major improvements regarding usability and interoperability!
Let’s have a look at the purpose of Europeana:
The goal for Europeana is to make European information resources easier to use in an online environment. It will build on Europe’s rich heritage, combining multicultural and multilingual environments with technological advances and new business models.
For the time being, it is still a long way to even get close to this goal. The usability of the page is not very convincing. Apart from the fancy timeline, no proper navigation has been implemented. The search function seems to work well, however, I don’t really know what to look for since the whole interface is not that inviting. Somehow it gives you the feeling of a search engine and not of an archive: lots of “digital items” are just listed as links, so if you just browse a bit through it you end up on many external pages in different languages! I suspect that this was a compromise, unfortunately one that does not contribute to a convincing user experience. So far no background information for most of the items is provided. Moreover, the whole social community aspect is not yet online. Let’s hope that these issues will be solved by 2010.
At the same time, I have my doubts whether this beta version will cause any buzz online as lots of functions are disabled. Maybe it would have been better to launch it with more options at a later stage.
Not surprisingly, the biggest problem of Europeana is the copyright issue, the page has a very restricted license:
All third-party material presented within this website are subject to individual Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) conditions and licences. Providing details of such IPR and licensing is the responsibility of third-party sources and should be either presented within this website or available from the originating sources of the third party material. (…)
The terms for access to individual objects by members of the public are in accordance with international copyright law.(…)
You are allowed access to browse the site for your personal use only. Users may print off or make single copies of web pages or objects for personal use only. Users may also save web pages or objects electronically for personal use. Electronic dissemination or mailing of web pages or objects articles is not permitted, without prior permission from the EDL Foundation, the rights holders of the material and/or the contributing content partner concerned.
So, no open and free license, no modern copyright arrangements absolutely nothing! I guess it is another compromise between the contributing partners and the project partners: the copyright stays with the organisation that provides the item. In a way contradictory to the aim to “make European information resources easier to use in an online environment”. It does not make it easier, it makes it impossible due to the restricted copyright!
Anyway, the underlying question here is how citizens can access publicly funded content in an online environment? (which applies to a large majority of Europeana contributors!)
In this context it is interesting to look at the recent initiative of the German Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives). The archive now cooperates with the wikimedia foundation and the first 100.000 historical images have been added to wikipedia under a relatively free license! And the goal is to make another 11 Mio historical images available online!
“Content is everything” in the digital age. The license problem is central and also projects like Europeana need to think about it in order to prevent legal problems. Several organisations such as the OSI , the Free Software Foundation (well known for its GPL and GFDL licenses) as well as the hugely popular Creative Commons worked on different models that aim at designing and certifying free and open (source) licences which cover different aspects of intellectual property and give legal security to the creator and the user of the content. Choosing the right license can indeed be difficult but if the right one is selected, the whole project can benefit from it, as wikipedia and openstreetmap convincingly demonstrate.
The creators of Europeana (and indeed many people working for the EU and national governments) should use the holidays to read a couple of books like “The Catheedral and the Bazaar” by Eric S. Raymond or “Free as in Freedom” by Richard M. Stallman and Sam Williams.
Coming back to the problems of Europeana: The above mentioned example with the Bundesarchiv – wikipedia cooperation could have been a very interesting model for Europeana ! Not only is it cheaper, but also provides a better license and more collaborative synergies because collaborative knowledge creation generates new knowledge (also some kind of European heritage….)! Europeana could have developed into a true cultural European project that fosters cooperation between citizens that are willing to contribute to it, either integrated into wikipedia or as some sort of wikipedia clone! At the moment, it is only a cultural search engine with millions of external and not integrated content “items”, basically a traditional library catalogue with some nice thumbnails!