The idiom of the ‘elephant in the room’ is one often conjured up when an obvious fact or presence is not acknowledged for fear that doing so will radically disturb people’s acceptance of the status quo. The conference in Berlin, Knowledge By Networking, Digitising Culture in Germany and Europe , had something of the elephant in the room. In this case the unmentioned presence was not the elephant, but the search engine Google.
Much of the focus of the conference was on portal development and indexing metadata relating to the extraordinary richness of Europe’s cultural heritage. In particular much time was dedicated to the twin development of the Michael collection-level inventory of museums, libraries and archives of the European Union (EU) and The European Library, which is indexing the items of digital collections held by the EU’s national libraries . The idea is to use these two bases to form the European Digital Library, a one-stop shop for Europe’s cultural heritage. There was also focus on national portals with similar tasks such as the French offering culture.fr  and the forthcoming Cultura Italiana .
But the fact that an American search engine is already doing some (but not all) of this work was not discussed as fully as it could have been. (Indeed, the French delegate went as far as admitting that he had been told not to make comparisons between the cultural portal being developed by the French and the American giant.) When one is shown such portals, there is the nagging suspicion that such portals will not draw in the number of users hoped for, precisely because so much user behaviour is centred on Google.
Too often there is an untested assumption that this commonly cited amorphous mass, the general public, will automatically be attracted to using such sites. Surely, the assumption runs, we are allowing the user to conquer the jungle of the Internet by providing all of a nation’s or a continent’s cultural resources in one place! But, in actual fact, what is the unique selling point that will persuade members of the general public to leave the familiar comfort of Google to a unfamiliar Web site that may or may not provide the results they are looking for? It was this question that required further debate at this conference.
But the ubiquity of Google does not mean such endeavours are futile, far from it. One can draw many positives from the development of such technologies - the fertilisation of shared work among European countries; the clear emphasis on developing and using standards that can be applied elsewhere (DC, OAI-PMH), the commitment to open source software. One is also aware of the heroic national efforts in bringing sundry institutions together to work to a common goal - the Italian effort of bringing 1,346 cultural institutions together was particularly noteworthy.
More specifically, in developing a sound technical platform to underpin such a collection of records, the EU is developing an infrastructure that could easily be exploited by other, more focused services around the continent (and further afield if needs be). Being able to embed European Digital Library tools in the resource discovery mechanisms of other more specific Web sites allows such services to provide specific, targeted search results which are far more relevant to the users’ needs.
One particular example was cited. A Web site dedicated to the study of Richard Wagner could import records relating to the composer from the European Digital Library and then, it was hoped, gather results from other trusted sources on the same topic, to ensure an intelligent, trusted set of results for the end-user. Users may not be interested in searching through all European collections, but may well appreciate the opportunity to search according to the topics, places or eras they are interested in.
Such was the broad tenor of the conference discussions.
Other issues focused on concerns of particular member states. Representatives of various German institutions gave details of the digitisation work being undertaken in Germany. What struck home here was the commitment to build an infrastructure to provide a structure for such digitisation work. Not only had the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft - DFG) invested in digitisation work but it had also developed data capture centres and was in the process of developing an organisational framework to ensure that results about the process of digitisation were shared around rather than developing their knowledge and tools separately .
Elsewhere, Maltese delegate Luciano Mule’Stagno illustrated their 3-D recreations of megalithic temples . Maria Sliwinska, from Poland, made a valuable point about the importance of not neglecting small collections held by smaller institutions (this dovetailed nicely with the aims of Michael).
But despite the interesting contributions of many of the presenters, one sensed the opportunity for informed debate had been missed. The absence of any voices from North America, or indeed from outside Europe, meant there was not the proper opportunity to argue and discuss some of the larger assumptions that underpin the surfacing of so much cultural heritage material on the Web. Only by engaging with a wide range of critical and friendly voices will we be able to push the elephant out of the room.
- The conference programme is available at http://www.knowbynet.de/index.php?ln=en&to=programme
- Information on Michael is available at http://www.michael-culture.eu/
The URL for The European Library is http://www.theeuropeanlibrary.org/portal/index.html
- The French portal Culture.fr is available at http://www.culture.fr/
- There is currently a placeholder for the Italian portal http://www.culturaitalia.it/ (Retrieved 15 August 2007)
- The planned ‘knowledge centre’ for information and sharing of ideas about digitisation will be based at http://www.kulturerbe-digital.de
- Heritage Malta http://www.heritagemalta.org/