Cultural cooperation brings digital access to hidden treasures worldwide

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Friedel Grant looks at some new web-based initiatives that provide virtual access to the treasures of art galleries, libraries and museums around the world

The Google Art project launched in February is a dazzling virtual tour through the galleries of some of the world’s most famous museums. It allows all of us to get a larger-than-life view of Renoir’s brushstrokes and zoom in on the intricate scenes of 16th century life in Pieter Bruegel’s The Harvesters.

The display is the latest example of how technology and innovation is bringing new life to the world’s cultural treasures, and it’s clear that people want more. More institutions participating. More content. More diversity of objects represented.

At Europeana, we’re pleased to see such a strong interest in cultural heritage as we work to unite digitised content from across Europe. The new Europeana Libraries project, for example, will make over five million digital books, texts, photographs and films from 19 of Europe’s leading research and university libraries freely available online over the next two years.

Participants include some of Europe’s most prestigious universities and research institutes, such as the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Trinity College Dublin and Lund University, and the content is diverse. It ranges from books scanned in partnerships between Google and major libraries to Spanish civil war photographs, movies documenting the history of medical science and the handwritten letters of philosopher Immanuel Kant. By bringing all of this together in one searchable resource, people will be able to discover a wider range of collections and types of materials in one place than has so far been possible.

The Europeana Libraries project will also offer full-text searchable content to Europeana, creating an experience for the book world that will parallel the ability to get an inch-by-inch view of the paintings digitised by Google Art. The study of texts and books will be taken beyond the simple scanned page to a whole new level of interaction, allowing users to drill down to individual words and phrases.

This quest to offer a better quality and depth of content is not the only similarity between Google Art and Europeana Libraries. Both projects are symbolic of a bigger movement to make culture more available to everyone. The time has come for our shared treasures to be brought out into the open, not kept behind security barriers or locked away in archives, inaccessible to all but a privileged few.

It’s not just about the content either. These new initiatives mark the start of a new phase of cooperation in the cultural world, where institutions of all shapes and sizes are uniting to share knowledge and resources, with the aim of creating a better service for everyone.

Just as Google Art hopes to extend its project beyond the 17 original participants, Europeana Libraries is a collaboration between the main research library organisations – LIBER, CERL and CENL – to create a service for researchers across Europe that also delivers content to Europeana. In two years, our 19 original participants will blossom into a thriving network of many more libraries across Europe.

As we stand on the threshold of a new stage of cultural development, words written over 100 years ago come to mind: ‘A finished museum is a dead museum,’ said George Brown Goode, who served as assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in the 1880s.

If the current pace of change and innovation is any indication, our cultural institutions are far from finished. On the contrary, they’re more alive than ever.

Friedel Grant is PR officer of The European Library