Massive EU online library looks to compete with Google

Inspired by ancient Alexandria’s attempt to collect the world’s knowledge, the EU launches on Thursday its Europeana digital library, an online digest of Europe’s cultural heritage.

Using the latest technologies, the European Union aims to draw together millions of digital objects, ranging from film, photographs, paintings, sound files, maps, manuscripts, newspapers, documents and, of course, books.

From its opening, users will be able to find major literary works like Dante’s Divine Comedy, or masterpieces such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring or the manuscripts of composers including Beethoven.

The internet and digitalisation techniques will “enable a Czech student to browse the British library without going to London, or an Irish art lover to get close to the Mona Lisa without queuing at the Louvre”, said Viviane Reding, EU commissioner responsible for new technologies.

Europeana is a chance to “give greater visibility to all the treasures hidden deep in our libraries, museums and archives”, said Reding, and “compare masterpieces until now spread around the four corners of the globe”.

With 14 staff members and at an annual cost put at around €2,5-million ($3,15-million) Europeana—which can be found at—is set for humble beginnings.

The prototype to be launched on Thursday will contain about two million digital items, all of them already in the public domain, as the most recent items are plagued by problems linked to copyright and their use online.

By 2010, the date when Europeana is due to be fully operational, the aim is to have 10-million works available, an impressive number yet a mere drop in the ocean compared to the 2,5-billion books in Europe’s more common libraries.

The process of digitalisation is a massive undertaking.

About 1% of the books in the EU’s national libraries are now available in digital form, with that figure expected to grow to four percent in 2012. And even when they are digitalised, they still have to be put online.

The size of the task proved daunting even for internet giant Microsoft.

The US computer firm launched its own online library project at the end of 2006, but abandoned it 18 months later after having digitalised about 750 000 works.

Google, one of the pioneers in this domain on the other hand, claims to have seven million books available for its “Google Book Search” project, which saw the light of day at the end of 2004.

Indeed Europeana was first seen as the 27-nation bloc’s response to Google. Based on a proposal from France, several nations came together in 2005 to call for the creation of such a library at EU level.

A first attempt, with a few thousand works from France, Hungary and Portugal, was put online in March 2007 by France’s national library, which has its own digital section, Gallica, launched in 1996.

Adding to the degree of difficulty, the EU project also aims to operate in 21 languages, although three—English, French and German—will be most prevalent early on.

In parallel with Europeana, Brussels will invest a total of about €120-million in 2009 and 2010 to develop digital technology, and put another 40-million into multilingualism techniques, like automatic translation.

But it hopes the private sector will also invest and help speed up the work. - AFP



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