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Focus

24/4/2012

INTERVIEW

Jill Cousins: "Europeana's success receives a boost from CulturaItalia and other national aggregators"

The director of the online collection of digital resources from Europe’s museums, archives, and libraries illustrates the portal’s characteristics and the contribution made by related national projects. She explains why the cultural sector is at a turning point and discusses several specific initiatioves, such as the website dedicated to the Great War

Jill Cousins
Jill Cousins

Jill Cousins is Programme Director of The European Library and Executive Director of the Europeana Foundation. She was responsible for creating the operational service The European Library. She has a strong web publishing background, having worked for VNU as their European Business Development Director and then transferred the lessons learnt from commercial business-to-business publishing to scholarly publishing working for Blackwell Publishing and several other academic publishers in the UK. Jill holds a Geography degree and a Ph.D in 16th Century Arabic and Turkish Sea Charts. 
In this interview, she described the Europeana project and the role of national aggregators. 
 
What is Europeana?
 
«Europeana is Europe’s most visible representation of our common European cultural heritage. Its establishment was triggered by European Heads of State raising the pressing need to digitise, preserve and make accessible online Europe’s wealth of cultures. A review of our 4 years of operation reveals a number of outstanding achievements: Europeana is first of all known for its portal. The heart of the portal is undoubtedly the data – currently 23m objects which come from around 2200 institutions spanning all historic periods and cultural movements of Europe from North to South and from East to West and which are documented in print, in still and moving image and in sound, in most living (and dead!) languages encountered in Europe. This data is harvested, harmonised and enriched by Europeana. On Europeana one can find not only the paintings of Titian held in Italy but also the ones in the Louvre, or in German museums. It’s an immensely important source of information. I urge you to go treasure hunting for your favourite artist or artistic period. You will be amazed at what you’ll find. 
The other side of Europeana that equals the data’s importance is the Europeana Network of aggregators and providers and also research institutes and service providers. The network like the ancient Greek and Roman agora is a place of exchange of ideas and discussion among cultural heritage professionals. It is the first time that to such an extent professionals from different sectors- museums, libraries, film and tv archives, get together to discuss issues of common interest such as digitisation, aggregation, usability, user engagement, metadata interoperability, and business models. New ideas are tried out through research and development such as in the area of Linked Open Data and with the help of the network they find wide dissemination and uptake. Our annual conferences, several thematic events and workshops, project meetings, an online professional exchange platform, Europeana Professional (http://pro.europeana.eu/) and our regular communications activities underpin this fruitful knowledge-sharing. 
Participation in the network is free as well as is access to a number of services being developed by Europeana and its partners. Besides having access to a number of specialised workshops around aggregation, technical, business, marketing and legal matters, there is the API, ingestion and mapping infrastructure, and expertise freely available.
 
Why is the role of Aggregators such as CulturaItalia important for Europeana?
 
«Thematic and national aggregators are vital. Europeana has been able to build on the valuable content and technical expertise accumulated by aggregators that existed before her, like culture.fr, cultura.it and The European Library.
Aggregators cater for the special needs of their national audiences or users that have interest in a specialised theme. They often develop a specialised contextual knowledge around a theme and offer expert metadata models that meet better the needs of a particular cultural domain. Some well known thematic pan-European aggregators are: EUscreen for TV history material, European Film Gateway for film heritage content, MIMO for musical instruments, The European Library for library content.
Europeana’s success is the result of such aggregators. There are thousands of cultural heritage institutions across Europe and it would be impossible to communicate, harvest and service each one of them individually. Thematic and national aggregators play a very important role: they collect, harmonise and often enrich data that they make available to Europeana. Vice versa, they are responsible for the diffusion of Europeana’s policies such as the Public Domain Charter and the promotion of Open Data as well as new developments such the importance of Linked Open Data to their partner institutions.
The Ministry of Culture of Italy very early on realised the importance of setting up a national aggregator that would be responsible for the aggregation and online representation of the treasures of Italian culture – one of the oldest and more diverse cultures in Europe. With 1.5m objects in Europeana, CulturaItalia is the third largest national aggregator after France and Spain. ICCU, the entity responsible for CulturaItalia, has coordinated and participated in numerous European projects including MICHAEL, ATHENA and Linked Heritage, promoting collaboration among cultural heritage professionals in Europe for several years. ATHENA has been the project with the largest contribution of museum data to Europeana so far».
 
What's the fuss about freeing up Cultural Data?
 
«Users want easy access to authentic, quality information in the workflows and the websites they habitually use. A German student researching Dante wants to be able to find all she is looking for on Wikipedia or from the website of her public or school library. She doesn't care where this content resides and she doesn't necessarily know that Europeana is a place to access cultural information. We need to bring the data to her. 
This is made possible technically nowadays with the use of APIs and the emergence of Linked Open Data. These are mechanisms to expose the metadata in 3rd party websites and applications. CulturaItalia, for example, can use the API to retrieve and make accessible all content related to Italy from all over Europe. In the same way, a specialised website can be created by pulling together all content related to Dante.  This allows the data to be enriched and interlinked with new information that adds functionality for the users. For example, combined with geolocation information, an application can be created for a mobile phone that pinpoints on a map the monuments around a user in a city and retrieves historic pictures of these monuments from Europeana.
The cultural sector in Europe is at a turning point. With Europeana's support, cultural institutions are increasingly making available their cultural data under an open license for everyone to reuse. This will be very beneficial for everyone. Users will be able to find more easily what they are looking for and they will have new and interesting applications at hand to discover cultural heritage. It will add quality and contextual information to the content.  It will enhance collaboration between cultural institutions across Europe. It can open up opportunities for them for new revenue streams. It will hopefully also be interesting for creative companies and start-ups to work closer with institutions and to develop new applications for educational, cultural and leisure uses which will unlock the economic potential of the cultural data. As Commissioner Neelie Kroes says “in the digital age, data takes on a whole new value, and with new technology we can do great things with it. Opening it up is not just good for transparency, it also stimulates great web content, and provides the fuel for a future economy”.
This mini-revolution is being carried out through the adoption of a new agreement between Europeana and the cultural institutions in Europe; Europeana's Data Exchange Agreement will dedicate to the public domain the millions of metadata records we harvest from providers. For some providers there are issues of privacy or copyright. We therefore ask the providers at this stage to give us the information they feel comfortable giving and take a step at a time. We expect to see greater value that will benefit society coming from the cultural data that has been created with the taxpayers’ support.
In order to create evidence of the possible re-uses of open metadata, Europeana run the Hack4Europe events in the course of 2011 in 4 countries – Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the UK, under the aegis of the Digital Agenda for Europe 2020. Prizes for the best apps were presented at the Digital Assembly Day, a major event convened by the Commission in Brussels. In all, 150 software developers and designers came together at the events to develop 55 prototypes for smartphones and tablets».
 
What about user engagement? How does culture become relevant for them?
 
«Europeana is experimenting with new ways to engage the users and new ways to tell old stories. As we move up to the centenary commemoration of the Great War, Europeana has collaborated with the Universtity of Oxford Computing Service, to collect family stories from people that participated in the War and gather them online in a dedicated website (Europeana1914-1918.eu). Only last year, we toured 8 cities in Germany running roadshows with local library partners to which we invited people to bring in their family documents and memorabilia for digitisation. The news media responded enthusiastically to the story, and it was covered in 290 media outlets, of which 258 were in Germany and included 6 TV broadcasts and 12 radio programmes.
It was very moving to see people come in droves, with their postcards, letters, photos, diaries of servicemen, trench art, uniforms and much more. In partnership with OUCS, the German National Library, and regional libraries in the roadshow towns, we offered people digitisation services on the spot. Experts on WW1 helped identify military insignia and locations and explained the significance of people’s family memorabilia.
Europeana 1914-1918 proved a very successful model for engaging people with their history in an innovative way. It drew the attention of policy-makers in Germany, with the result that we were delighted to welcome the German Minister of State for Culture, Bernd Neumann, on a visit to the Europeana offices. During 2012 the WW1 family history roadshows will visit at least six more countries, including Luxembourg, England, Ireland, Slovenia, Denmark and Belgium. We hope eventually to be able to recreate the Great War from a different perspective than told by the history books – the way ordinary people and service men experienced it and the impact it had on their and their families’ lives. We look forward to engaging more partners and to doing more of these exciting projects in the coming time!».  



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