... in europeana

Brussels - a Manifesto: Towards the Capital of Europe

01 Oct 2011 | 717 words | architecture brussels culture europeana


‘Towards the west, the border is sharp because of natural conditions…’ [Brussels – a manifesto, p.27]

I have mentioned before that Bruxelles is one of my favorite cities in the world and certainly in Europe. This is in spite of (or rather because) the city is a mess: European institutions reside in buildings that most of the time look as if they have been randomly dropped from the sky and fact that the city is a nightmare to cycle in but a joy to be in a taxi since it has lots of tunnels (i ❤️ tunnels!).

In my perception Bruxelles with al its unfinishedness and it’s myriad of antagonisms has always felt like a proper capital of Europe, but i can understand why people are not perceiving it as such. With the European project under intensifying attack it is probably a really bad time to propose investing heavily into making Bruxelles a proper European capital, but that is exactly what the authors of the excellent ‘Brussels – a Manifesto: Towards the Capital of Europe’ proposed in their 2007 manifesto.

The whole manifest, from the observations on the borders of Europe that contain the above quote to architectural interventions proposed, really makes a lot of sense to me and i would love to see this realized sooner rather than later.

Of all the interventions proposed by the authors, one struck a particular chord in me: The Mundaneum complex that – according to the Manifesto’s authors – would come to house the European Central Library and a number of related Institutions. The Mundaneum gets his name from a rather fascinating post WWI attempt to build an institution that would hold all the worlds knowledge (a sort of pre-google/wikipedia if you will):

This project of culture and education in the west of Brussels refers to the Project that Paul Ortlet and Henri Lafontaine started in 1919: The creation of a Munadaneum in Brussels’ Cinquantenaire Area. The Ambition was to create a centre of centers, or a worlds database of knowledge – “a temple devoted to knowledge, education and fraternity among people”, ” a representation of the world and what it contains”. To be able to archive and this knowledge, Ortlet developed a standard classification system based on referential cards. This is the Universal Decimal Classification system that would simplify scientific research by establishing links between different forms and areas of knowledge. It is the first database , which also formed the basis for hypertext. Otlet’s and Lafontaine’s initiative was not an isolated case: At the same time Jorge Luis Borges’ imagined the Library of Babel as a place that contains “all the possible combinations of the twenty-odd orthographical symbols … the translation of every book in all languages, the interpolations of every book in all books”. [Brussels – a manifesto, p.152]

As someone spending a lot of my time working with Europeana, reading the proposal for the Mundaeum/European Central Library reminds me of the relatively sorry state of the European digitization effort. Europeana – it’s flagship and closest real world equivalent of the Manifesto’s Europeana Central Library – currently consists of a website that provides information about 20M works, many of which are only accessible in low-quality to online users. This stands in sharp contrast this with the – entirely fictional – description of the European Central Library from the manifesto:

The Central Library, cooperating with national libraries, provides the links, translations and information to be elaborated and processed. Books, cinema, newspapers, music, etcetera would be digitized and saved in one place; 260.000.000 items now stored on the shelves of 25 national libraries in 43 different languages would all be organized with the UDC system that Paul Ortlet developed. [Brussels – a manifesto, p.152]

Reading the above, it strikes me that one of the things that Europeana is missing most is an offline presence like the proposed Mundaneum :

European Central Library

This is what europeana should be looking like today [Brussels – a manifesto, p.157]

bonus: The proposed location for the Mundaneum is right next to the spot where i took this picture back in 2000 or so…

update [14.3.12]: The folks at google have discovered the mundane as well. they have also produced a nice little video honoring Ortlet as ‘the man who dreamt the internet‘.

On risks & rewards (related to sharing metadata)

15 Oct 2010 | 825 words | copyright europeana metadata technology work

In the light of yesterday’s rather confusing and unconstructive discussion about ‘risks and rewards’ at the Europeanaopen culture 2010‘ conference, i thought that it might be useful to clarify a number of things. If you take a step back from form your favourite grief about copyright/public funding and look at the larger picture the whole risks and rewards discussion is actually quite simple:

Say you are a cultural heritage institution that wants to make digital representations of cultural artifacts (your ‘content’) from your collection available online: First you will need to ensure that you are actually allowed to offer these digital representations online (for example because the artifacts are out of copyright (in the public domain) or because you have managed to obtain permission to do so from the copyright holders). Once you have succeeded in this you will probably make some descriptive metadata about the objects available alongside the digital representations (if you don’t it will be very hard for users to find and to make sense of these digital representations)

Now say you want (or have to1 work with Europeana, what does that mean for your content and your descriptive metadata? You work with Europeana by contributing descriptions about the digital representations that you want to make accessible via www.europeana.eu to Europeana. In order to be able to point people to your content Europeana needs to have these descriptions. In contrast to your metadata Europeana does not need or want you content2.

Now what happens if you give your descriptive metadata to Europeana? Europeana will use it in order to point its users to your content. In order to do so Europeana will transform, combine and enrich your metadata with other relevant metadata that has been contributed by other heritage institutions. In order to fully leverage the possibilities offered by the web it also needs to make your metadata available online without restrictions (this is called linked open data, and if you want to understand why this is amazing you should go read the excellent primer on the next generation European Data Model by Stefan Gradman et al).

Now that sounds scary: ‘your metadata available without restrictions’. So lets break down the risks: First of all you loose some control over your metadata since others can work with it as well. This risk squarely falls into the category of a known unknown since you wont be able to tell right now if that loss of control will have positive or negative consequences. Secondly there is a risk of loosing imaginary revenue3: other parties might somehow generate revenue based on your metadata (this is more if an unknown unknown).

But since there are risks to making available your metadata without restrictions, there are also rewards: if your metadata is not available on Europeana users cannot find your content via Europeana. Being findable via Europeana will bring more users to your content and making your metadata available to Europeana will also result in Europeana enriching your metadata (and you are then free to incorporate enriched metadata in your own system or not).

Now all you have to do yourself is to decide if the risks out-weight the rewards: If they do then you should not make metadata about your content available to Europeana and you will not have to face these risks. On the other hand if the rewards out-weight the risks then you should probably make your metadata available to Europeana (and of course you can always experiment with a small portion of your metadata first to see if your cost benefit analysis is correct, you can also exclude your most valuable metadata or provide subsets).

In the end this really comes down to this: Europeana is a search engine that will help people find your content based on the descriptions of the content that are providing to Europeana. If you don’t provide descriptions your works can’t be found via Europeana and you do not have to face any of the risks described above4.

  1. This depends a bit on how you look at this. if you have accepted funds to digitize your content under the condition that you make it available via Europeana then of course you had the choice not to take those funds. ↩︎

  2. Your content is very similar to the secret code that comes with your debit card here: your bank has no reason to ever ask you for your secret number and Europeana has no reason to ever ask you for your content. if they do something fishy is going on and you should alert the competent authorities. ↩︎

  3. Imaginary revenue is always bigger than actual revenue. Imaginary revenue is created by fantasizing about a yet undefined customer showing up and offering lots of revenue for something that so far you have failed to monetize yourself. ↩︎

  4. Depending on how Europeana will grow not making your descriptive metadata available might also carry a risk: you might become less relevant as an institution. ↩︎

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: