Plinius

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

PL 1/12: Europeana 1.5

Filed under: education, future, web 2.0 — plinius @ 3:14 pm

The future of culture is largely digital.

We will, of course, continue to visit monuments like the pyramids and Parthenon on the spot. Digital images cannot replace the experience of being there. But digital artifacts can enrich the physical visit. Good reproductions can also substitute for “the thing itself”.  A virtual Forum Romanum and a digital Beowulf allow much closer interaction with the historical objects than is possible in real life.

Web access is fast, cheap and convenient. Families cannot spend years and years traversing Europe in search of culture. For most of us, physical visits must be the exception. Virtual access will be the rule.

The actual movement of culture from physical to virtual varies between fields and countries. Music, movies, games and television series morphed rapidly. So did academic journals – as well as encyclopedias and other reference books. The introduction of tablet computers will have a similar impact on books in general.

Proud horses and sailing ships have not disappeared. But they now represent hobbies and leisure rather than trade and war. Nor will books on paper die. But they will no longer be the dominant actors in the world of texts and documentation. The centre moves like the magnetic pole – from words on paper to digital texts and multimedia.

Europeana

Europeana is a cross-national European response to this large-scale shift in cultural production. Europeana presents itself as the biggest and most important web-based entry point to Europe’s culture:

Europeana enables people to explore the digital resources of Europe’s museums, libraries, archives and audio-visual collections. It promotes discovery and networking opportunities in a multilingual space where users can engage, share in and be inspired by the rich diversity of Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage.

The project offers access, but not use. The project is basically defined and driven from the supply side. A network of important cultural institutions will make their digital resources available through a single portal. Visitors may engage, share and be inspired – if they decide to come.

Ideas and inspiration can be found within the more than 14.6 million items on Europeana. These objects include:

  • Images – paintings, drawings, maps, photos and pictures of museum objects
  • Texts – books, newspapers, letters, diaries and archival papers
  • Sounds – music and spoken word from cylinders, tapes, discs and radio broadcasts
  • Videos – films, newsreels and TV broadcasts

Fifteen million items is an impressive number. But the statistics focus on supply rather than demand. You have to look closely at the published documents to find information about the actual use of Europeana. Most readers will be awed by the scale of production and forget to consider the demand side.

Politicians and journalists are suitably impressed. Do they use Europeana often themselves? Most unlikely. They recognize the famous works that are presented as shining examples of Europeana content, and are overwhelmed by the vast number of items. The mind boggles. We cannot even imagine a million books, a million paintings, a million hours music, film and video.

But the European public at large cannot cope with millions and millions of cultural items. The average Norwegian reads 20-25 books a year – less than two thousand books in a liftetime. at most fifteen hundred books in a lifetime. An ordinary reader cannot grasp or relate to a library of million books. The great majority of all books – and works of art – are only of interest to scholars and specialists in particular fields.

Most readers stick to recent books that are written for today’s general audience. Elite readers will sample the classics as well, from the Analects of Confucius and the Egyptian Book of the Dead – through Homer, Plato, Cicero and St. Augustin – to the great writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century: Darwin and Dostojevskij, Nietszche and Tennyson, Marcel Proust and Thomas Mann. But only a tiny minority will bother with  such second level classics as Ssu Ma Chien and the Sanskrit grammarians, the tourist guide to Greece by Pausanias, the Historia Naturalis of Plinius the Elder, the Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun and the medieval Roman de la Rose – and so on and so forth.

Most books, however, are neither first nor second level classics. They were written, well or badly, for purposes that no longer exist. For ordinary modern people they are basically unreadable.

Today’s users

Jon Purday, Senior Communications Advisor, Europeana Foundation, gave an interview  to the Greek magazine Synergasia, not too long ago (No.3, December 2010). He said:

– At present, our key demographic seems to be people over 40 – the same age group that makes most use of museums and libraries.. A lot of them are professionals, researchers, curators and similar.

It is important to reach young learners, students and school children. For that purpose, we are starting to work with EU School Net to put teaching applications together.

We have been developing a Facebook group for people interested in Europeana. We link exhibitions, e.g. the Exhibition of Art Nouveau, to the Facebook art nouveau community,. We are piloting the use of APIs, as a way to integrate Europeana content into other sites. An example of an API is Google Maps, that can be embedded in a wide range of different websites.

The Europeana API will enable our content to be searched from and integrated into a college’s website, for example. We offer the APIs for free and we will also offer web services such as widgets. Thus, we will be able to put our material into the workflow of a younger demographic population.

The typical users of Europeana were actually middle-aged scholars and academics. The project wants to reach out to young people, but they had not actually achieved this by the time of the interview.

Pie in the sky

The aim is laudable. But good will is no substitute for mastery. I have followed Europeana with great interest from its beginning. the start. The planning documents, the web site and the actual use of social media do not reveal a forceful  2.0 strategy. Articles and interviews by the people involved do not – so far – demonstrate a realistic understanding of the intense competition for customers that characterizes the web environment.

Many other institutions have tried to find a web strategy without changing their organizational culture. They tend to fail. Deep transformation is needed.

Europeana wants “to put our material into the workflow of a younger demographic population”. That means

  • to catch the attention of young people,
  • to deliver services that interest them (rather than their parents and teachers)
  • in competition with a swarm of lean and hungry innovators

I believe Europeana will succeed in the youth segment when I see it. Not a minute before. It’s a jungle out there.

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