Computers in Libraries
Vol. 20, No. 10 • Nov./Dec. 2000
Digital Library Initiatives Across Europe
by David Raitt

Here's a brief overview of some of Europe's digital initiatives that are forming the next generation of libraries.
Several terms have been used interchangeably at various times to try to encapsulate the concept of a library full of digitized data that represents information and knowledge. These terms include the electronic library, the virtual library, and the library without walls, as well as the more recent digital library. Recognizing the problem, the partners involved in the Digital Library Federation have come up with the following working definition of the digital library:

Digital libraries are organizations that provide the resources, including the specialized staff, to select, structure, offer intellectual access to, interpret, distribute, preserve the integrity of, and ensure the persistence over time of collections of digital works so that they are readily and economically available for use by a defined community or set of communities. 1

There are quite a large number of activities being undertaken in European countries with respect to digital libraries—some on a European level, some on a national level, and others on a much more local level. Some activities cover subject areas (such as economics or the humanities), others cover types of material (such as periodicals, rare books, or images), while still others focus on the issues and challenges surrounding digital libraries (such as intellectual property, digitization techniques, or management). In this article, I will provide a brief overview of some of the digital library initiatives across Europe that are addressing the issues and challenges that are confronting libraries in their desire to go digital.

Projects Funded by the European Commission

Telematics for Libraries
The Telematics for Libraries program of the European Commission (EC) aims to facilitate access to knowledge held in libraries throughout the European Union while reducing disparities between national systems and practices. While it's not exclusively devoted to digital libraries—the program covers topics such as networking (OSI, Web), cataloging (OPACs), imaging, multimedia, and copy-right, among others—many of the 100 or more projects funded by the European Commission do cover issues and activities related to digital libraries. I've summarized a selection of diverse EC projects for this article.

Candle (Controlled Access to Network Digital Libraries in Europe) will facilitate access to digital collections within and without the library in a controlled way by producing low-cost library management software for rights control and fee management. The objective is to demonstrate how the CaseLibrary digital management system can be used to improve the handling of electronic publications that are acquired by libraries through collaboration with publishers and supplier agencies. Candle will focus on applying an existing library management system in environments that encourage publishers to offer electronic products to libraries in order to meet user needs by addressing license metering, control, feedback, monitoring, rights management, access control, and promotion. It is anticipated that there will be benefits for publishers in providing an improved tool for reaching users and managing costs; benefits for libraries in facilitating management, control, and security; and benefits for users in providing user-friendly interfaces and in achieving cost reductions as a result of optimized handling. The project currently has members in Greece, Italy, Spain, and the U.K.

The goal of the Decomate II (Delivery of Copyright Materials in Electronic Form) project is to develop a European digital library for economics—an end-user service that will provide distributed access to a variety of information resources held in different libraries throughout Europe. It builds on the successful Decomate I project by covering both copyright and non-copyright materials of different types and in different formats and by allowing users to access the resources in any of the participating libraries through a single, uniform interface. Decomate II will include personalized user services plus enhanced techniques for knowledge navigation, and will be also a test bed for license agreements with publishers and information providers and for standards and models of the use of digital library services. The software release will be implemented in several European test sites to gain knowledge on best-practice installations and real costs and efforts. Tilburg University Library in the Netherlands coordinates the project, which has other partners in Italy, the U.K., Spain, and Belgium, as well as the Netherlands. A working demonstrator is now available with two databases, and free access is given in return for evaluation.

The Dieper (Digitized European Periodicals) project offers a test bed for studying the impact of providing fast electronic access to relatively short documents such as journal articles. It addresses the need in Europe for a central access point or registry where all digitized periodicals can be recorded and from where full-text searches of articles can be carried out. Records in the register are linked (via the Web) to comprehensive archives of periodical literature throughout Europe. Project participants are building up a virtual library of periodicals by scanning selected journals and linking any existing digital collections both to the register and to the search engine. The project is expected to improve access to older periodical literature, preserve items, complete collections, test standards for digitizing and access, and establish what infrastructures are required. Dieper is coordinated by the Georg August University in Germany and has partners in France, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, Austria, Italy, Greece, and Estonia.

Blind musicians need to read musical scores, and Braille is currently the only means in regular production whereby this can be done. Production requires knowledge of music and Braille music encoding. It is labor-intensive and therefore expensive. In an effort to reduce costs and duplication of efforts, four of the major Braille music libraries have formed a shared catalog of Braille music. Work is afoot, in a 2-year project known as Miracle (Music Information Resources Assisted Computer Library Exchange), to develop a system whereby special libraries can have access to and download Braille music in digital form from a central database. The Dutch National Library for the Blind (SVB) in the Netherlands is coordinating the project, which started in 1999 and has partners in the U.K., Italy, Switzerland, and Spain.

Another Collaborative European/World Project
Strictly speaking, this project is an international one, however I'm including it in this roundup because most of the partners are European. The main objective of Biblioteca Universalis is to make the major works of the world's scientific and cultural heritage accessible to a vast public via multimedia technologies. The aim is to exploit existing digitization programs in order to build up a large distributed virtual collection of knowledge and make it available to end-users via global communication networks, thus establishing a global electronic library system. Biblioteca Universalis is a G-7 project and the founding partners were the national libraries of France, Italy, Germany, the U.K., Japan, Canada, and the U.S.A. The national libraries of Belgium, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland have since joined the project.

Biblioteca Universalis is expected to strengthen the function of libraries and improve international availability of digitized resources, including not only bibliographic records but also information content (by integrating text, graphics, still and moving images, and sound). It will be able to promote large-scale digitizing techniques and also encourage the definition and adoption of global standards in a number of areas such as digitization, communication protocols, and user interfaces. While building on digital library initiatives already underway in member national libraries, Biblioteca Universalis will address interoperability questions, effective management, and the practical framework for international cooperation.

National Digital Library Initiatives

Gallica is an experimental server that provides remote access to the digital collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) based on digitized printed paper formats, still and moving images, and sounds. Material relating to the 19th century was a natural choice for the initial experiments. Of the 30 million digitized pages of material in the French national library (about one-third of which relate to the 19th century), Gallica currently allows access to 2 million pages in image format. It also contains a portion of the Frantext database of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, which offers more than 250 volumes in full text. The aim of Gallica is to present a sample of texts from a variety of publications (monographs, dictionaries, periodicals, rare books) in order to evaluate the conditions under which such digital documents are able to be accessed via networks. To permit better navigation, the Gallica resources have been classed according to the traditional range of disciplines found in 19th-century literature.

The Classical Gallica service will be a reference component for researchers offering further digital documents and images via the Internet of the literary works of the great French writers. Gallica 2000, with 80,000 documents and a more intuitive search system, constitutes the most important version of the system to date since the creation of the server in 1997. It provides access to a multimedia library that spans from the Middle Ages to the 20th century.

Global Info, the German Digital Libraries Project, was launched in 1998 with some $35 million for projects planned for two phases over the following 6 years. In contrast to the American Digital Libraries Project, the German project is based on furthering cooperation with universities, publishing houses, book dealers, special subject information centers, and learned societies, as well as academic and research libraries, rather than with the public. Its goals are to achieve efficient access to worldwide information, directly from the scientist's desktop, while providing the organization for and stimulating structural change in the information and communication process of the scientific community.

Research and activities are progressing in five main areas or focal points: facilitating more efficient publishing procedures by exploiting electronic means; utilizing electronic technology to advance teaching and learning possibilities; improving content organization, retrieval, and indexing; facilitating retrieval and content through user interface design; and agreeing on aspects of ownership, authenticity, pricing, and billing. Deliverables of the various research projects will be in the form of tested, workable prototypes that can be implemented in the German national information infrastructure.

With over 40 million volumes, the Russian State Library (RSL, formerly the Lenin Library) is the largest library in Europe and the second largest in the world. With the assistance of Unesco, the library is currently undergoing a modernization program called the Information Tacis Project. An important component of the modernization is the implementation of information technology into everyday practice. The aim is to convert the RSL from a traditional library into a digital library that meets the growing information needs of the Russian people.

The modernization program consists of four inter-related elements:

  1. Analyzing user requirements, state of the current infrastructure and information services, and examining future needs
  2. Analyzing document processing, including the design of a conversion project for conventional library catalogs and specifying organizational structures and functionalities of an integrated library system
  3. Developing a business strategy and plan by analyzing market opportunities for key library services
  4. Implementing a pilot project, including the design of a local area network and installation of an integrated library system
The project started in December 1998 and lasted for 18 months, with partners including the British Council, the National Library of Scotland, and Jouve SA (France). Additional financing is provided under the European Union's Tacis program, which is an initiative for the New Independent States and Mongolia to foster the development of economic and political links between the EU and partner countries. By June 2000, several outcomes had been realized: the installation of a new PC LAN for staff and users (including a new server and state-of-the-art cabling); the implementation of an integrated library system (ALEPH 500) customized to Russian needs (with a Cyrillic character set); a conversion model for RSL catalogs (both card and machine readable); an OPAC of some 300,000 bibliographic records accessible both via the intranet and the Internet; and a center of expertise for Russia on digital library development.

All five Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) have some sort of digital library program, and I've just selected a small sampling to give an idea of projects underway.

Danmarks Elektroniske Forsknings-bibliotek (DEF, the Danish Electronic Research Library) is providing a virtual library for researchers, students, lecturers, and other users of Danish research institutions through the Internet. A Web gateway will provide access to and the ability to order from library catalog data and digitized collections, including foreign databases with periodical articles in full text. An important aspect of the DEF is the ability to permit the user, via a common search profile, to carry out simultaneous searching in several databases with the same search string in order to achieve better results. In many cases this facility will also make the user aware of new information resources. DEF also wants to ensure that rare collections that are not immediately available can be digitized and opened to the general public.

The Danish Electronic Research Library project is the result of a cooperative effort by the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Research, and the Ministry of Education. The Danish National Library Authority is responsible for actually running the project, which includes Denmark's 12 largest and 44 medium-sized research libraries as well as Danish National Library. In due course, more than 200 small research libraries and the country's other information suppliers and research institutes will become part of DEF.

In Finland, the National Electronic Library, FinELib, is a program launched by the Ministry of Education and aimed at supporting higher education and research in Finland. Since the beginning of 2000, the National Library of Finland has been responsible for the activities. FinELib acquires Finnish and foreign electronic material for Finland, such as scientific journals and reference databases for specialist fields. The goal is to provide material serving as many scientific disciplines as possible. It also aims to offer a more effective way of finding material from the Internet and to provide common access to information using the data network. The National Electronic Library works in close cooperation with other national development programs, and common concerns include electronic publishing, long-term storage of electronic material, copyright, and other topical issues.

Linköping University in Sweden houses the editorial office of Project Runeberg, a project aimed at publishing free electronic editions of old (out of copyright) books from Sweden and other Nordic countries on the Internet. The catalog of Nordic Literature on the Internet since 1992 lists more than 200 titles, most of which are in Swedish. Project Runeberg is built on voluntary cooperation—with hundreds of volunteers around the world—although some funding is provided by the university. Electronic facsimile editions were introduced in autumn 1998 to avoid OCR errors and typing mistakes, although not all texts have bitmap images yet.

The national library of Spain, Biblioteca Nacional, has a digitization project under the name of Memoria Hispanica. Like the French national library, the Spanish project also involves the digitization of unique works, rare items, and other treasures; the books most requested by readers (provided these are not subject to copyright); and the volumes most susceptible to deterioration. The scanned images of the various volumes will be linked up with the corresponding bibliographical descriptions in the Biblioteca Nacional's database, Ariadna. At a later stage it will be possible to access these images via the Internet.

Memoria Hispanica, which started in 1995, was conceived as an attempt to deal with all the different factors specifically affecting public libraries. Its aims include finding better solutions for conservation and deterioration, providing new services, and enhancing the presence of Hispanic literature around the world through global accessibility to digital documents. The library materials included in the initial selection consisted of manuscripts, maps, printed books, periodicals, illustrations and engravings, drawings, musical scores, sound recordings, photographs, and films. The project actually began with the digitization of Iconografía Hispanica—a work of some 20,000 portraits of Spanish personalities through the ages.

Another project undertaken by the Biblioteca Nacional in cooperation with the Fundación Histórica Tavera is Clásicos Tavera, which includes the digitized text of classic and key works in the history of Spain and Iberoamérica in every field of learning. Some 4,000 titles are to be scanned over the next 4 years. One of the largest digitization projects in Spain, Clásicos Tavera will include two complementary areas: general information sources and specific themes. The former will include manuscript collections, specialist archives, theses, bibliographies, and the like; while the latter will cover colonial and constitutional legislation, genealogy, cartography, architecture, medicine, science, and the history of literature on the Iberian peninsula.

In the Netherlands, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (KB, our Royal Library), through its Digital Collections KB program, aims to provide online access via the Internet to its scholarly collections and documents in the field of Humanities. The national library believes that digitization is important because it widens access to and dissemination of knowledge, and it preserves original material (especially that vulnerable to damage by users), so to reach this goal it has drawn up an extensive policy plan for digitization. The plan covers such aspects as the framework for digitization, types of collections and selection criteria, functionality (how users might want to view images and texts), technology development and management, collection registration, costs, and exploitation of results.

Of the Royal Library's many projects, the Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts project aims to provide electronic access to initials, miniatures, and margin decorations (about 6,500 images) from the many illuminated manuscripts in the national library. Medieval illuminated manuscripts are frequently consulted, and the precious collection has a unique cultural value for a varied and relatively wide audience. Since it concerns valuable and fragile materials, the books may only be consulted within the library walls, thus it is expected that the improved accessibility and search possibilities following digitization will increase the interest in the materials even more.

One of the early digitization experiments was the Database of Watermarks, which aims to be a tool that can be used for studying all kinds of paper. Using the database of watermarks and their images, users will be able to answer questions about date, location, and authenticity much more easily than ever before. Watermarks from 15th-century printed books were selected as the initial content. Using electro-radiography techniques, a relatively comprehensive database with images and descriptions of 2,500 examples is being built up from over 100 dated incunabula from the collection of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek. The database of watermarks will be expandable, and it will have links to other international databases.

The cultural heritage of a country includes items such as books, pamphlets, history prints, commemorative medals, paintings, letters, and other unique documents and a wide range of artifacts like ship models, harnesses, agricultural implements, and pottery. Such materials are often not well-cataloged, sometimes vulnerable, and therefore not easily accessible to users. So the Koninklijke Bibliotheek and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam have taken the initiative to publish part of their rich collections on the Internet. The Digital Historical Atlas project focuses on four important periods in 17th-century history, the so-called Dutch Golden Age. All selected "documents" of the KB and Rijksmuseum relating to these periods are being digitized: This amounts to some 2,200 pamphlets, 600 history prints, and 200 commemorative medals. The system has been developed in such a way that it can easily be extended to other types of "documents" such as paintings, ship models, and other three-dimensional objects. Started in June 1999, the project is expected to be completed in June 2001.

The British Library's Digital Library Programme aims to establish digital information services based on the content of the British Library's varied collections, and then to develop the capabilities to work with these collections in new and different ways while improving access to them from all over the world. The digital library that's being created will consist of a critical mass of digitally held documents comprising text, still and moving images, and sound, on a variety of subjects, both modern and historical. The idea is that the digital collections and services will supplement rather than replace traditional collections. By offering remote electronic document delivery, the library expects to reach out to new users. The British Library's digital collection is being built from a number of sources in three main ways: through the digitization of some of the library's existing collection material (such as ancient texts and manuscripts like the historic Magna Carta and the Old English poem Beowulf); through the acquisition of published digital materials (such as patents, CD-ROMs, sound recordings); and through the legal deposit of digital materials published in the U.K.

The main aim of the Electronic Libraries (eLib) Programme has been to engage the higher education community in the U.K. in developing and shaping the electronic library. In phases 1 and 2, some 60 projects were funded in the areas of electronic publishing, image digitization, document delivery, and access to networked resources. Phase 3 is an attempt to consolidate the experience and lessons learned from these past projects and to build model digital libraries for the future through four main approaches (described in more detail below): hybrid libraries, large-scale resource discovery, digital preservation, and the development of early eLib projects into services.

The Hybrid Libraries project aims to integrate electronic products and services with the traditional functions of a library. The goal is for a library user to be able to use a single interface to discover and retrieve all of a library's resources, both internal (physical materials) or external (Internet resources). There are five Hybrid Library projects, each of which exhibits a variety of different approaches: subject-based in business (Headline) and humanities (Malibu); focused on implications for the user (Hylife) or technical issues (Agora); or developing a range of modules within different subject areas in a single institution (Builder).

The Large Scale Resource Discovery (CLUMPS) approach arises out of the need to share resources. The four eLib CLUMP projects take the form of virtual union catalogs that are searchable simultaneously over a network and accessible through a common interface. Three of the projects build on existing collaborative arrangements and are regionally based, while the fourth is subject-based (music).

The Cedars project is investigating the strategic, methodological, and practical issues involved for the long-term preservation of digital information resources with the aim of developing a national strategy for digital preservation. There are numerous other projects under the eLib program in areas such as access to networked resources, digitization, electronic document delivery, electronic journals, electronic short loans, images, on-demand publishing, and training.

Localized Digital Initiatives

The rapid advances in digital technology have opened up exciting possibilities for many libraries, including the National Library of Scotland, which has created one of the largest online bibliographical databases in a European library. One of its first projects was to digitize the only known copies of the earliest books printed in Scotland—the Chepman & Myllar Prints produced in Edinburgh about 1508. Ongoing work on the books is directed toward preparing a complete page-through version for the library's Web site. Accompanied by various levels of introductory material as well as a transcription and commentary, this is expected to appeal both to the general public and to a more specialist audience. More and more of the library's treasures and most intriguing items are being digitized. One fascinating gem is the last letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, which was completed at 2 a.m. on Wednesday, February 8, 1587, 6 hours before she was to mount the scaffold at Fotheringay Castle.

Another important digitization project is that of the photography of John Thompson, one of Scotland's most important photographers. His images of China and Southeast Asia brought the land, culture, and people of the Far East alive for the "armchair travelers" of Victorian Britain, while his pioneering work among the street people of London made him one of the first photojournalists. Digitization of material relating to the first World War, from the papers of Earl Haig as well as other recent acquisitions, is proceeding also. A separate Web site has been set up by the National Library of Scotland with the Churchill Archives Centre, which allows worldwide access to a "virtual exhibition" of key documents and photographs from the controversial Churchill Papers, as well as providing a specially commissioned set of downloadable educational materials for school pupils to use in the classroom.

Formed in the summer of 1999, the Centre for Digital Library Research (CDLR) at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland brings together long-standing research interests in the digital information area that were previously spread across two university departments. The CDLR seeks to combine theory with practice in innovative ways with the aim of being a center of excellence on digital library issues, ranging from information policy and information retrieval to document storage technologies and standards. Current projects in which the CDLR group is involved include the Glasgow Digital Library, SCONE (Scottish Collections Network Extension project), SEED (Scottish Executive Education Department project), the Digital Information Office, the Strathclyde aspects of CAIRNS (Co-operative Academic Information Retrieval Network for Scotland) and GAELS (Glasgow Allied Electronically with Strathclyde), the BUBL Internet Information Service, and the Clyde Virtual University. Just to give a flavor of the kinds of things being looked at, I'll describe two projects:

The Glasgow Digital Library (GDL) project is a citywide initiative that's trying to establish GDL as a virtual co-library of the majority of public institutions in Glasgow. The long-term goal is to create a wholly digital resource to support teaching, learning, and research at all levels in the city. The project will significantly enhance existing collaboration within the city and will bring together material currently separated by ownership and physical location.

The National Library of Scotland has created one of the largest online bibliographical databases in a European library.

GAELS (Glasgow Allied ELectronically with Strathclyde) is a pilot project based at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde. It is a practical project that has two principle aspects: 1) improving joint access to electronic information services and resources for postgraduate students and staff researchers, and 2) providing joint Web-based training materials for postgraduate students. Secondly, GAELS has a research function: to investigate problems and issues that arise in jointly providing such services. The pilot project is examining how to provide these services within the engineering faculties at the universities. The longer-term aim is to extend collaborative services and training to all faculty members in the two universities.

A Final Word
These brief overviews demonstrate the ways that library issues and challenges are being tackled on a pan-European, national, and local level. I must emphasize, however, that there are many other projects that I have not mentioned. And I also have to point out that libraries are not alone in digitizing their collections—for example, in the U.K., the Public Records Office is busy digitizing its records in a vast program due to be completed in 2001; and the National Digital Archive of Data-sets, available since March 1998, contains archived digital data from U.K. government departments and agencies.

Digital libraries and archives can enable worldwide access to a never-ending supply of distributed information and knowledge that is constantly available, easily updated, and convenient to use. In a manner never quite achieved before on the same scale, digital library issues are bringing together cooperative groupings of libraries with participation from and funding by public, private, and governmental bodies to discuss common standards, collaborative management, intellectual property rights, electronic publishing, and document delivery. And all this is happening on a global level!

There are several reasons why information experts are choosing to create digital libraries: There is not only the need to preserve and conserve materials, but also the desire to increase the customer base by making older and rarer or more-heavily-used documents available to a much wider audience. In addition, there is the fact that the level of electronic publication is increasing rapidly in key areas—for instance, STM journals and patents, where pundits anticipate that all patents will be digitally produced by the end of this year. This has implications on a library's acquisition, storage, preservation, and service policies. Indeed, the Information Services Department at Telecom New Zealand is only interested in acquiring material electronically these days.

Whether they are called electronic, virtual, hybrid, or digital libraries, it is clear that such entities are becoming more and more prevalent, and that the increasing scope of the Internet is making their accessibility even greater and more likely.

David Raitt works in the Technology Harmonization and Strategy Division of the European Space Agency's large R&D establishment, ESTEC, located in Noordwijk, Netherlands, where he carries out strategic analyses, directs studies, and creates a knowledge warehouse for the space community. Prior to this appointment, he ran the Library and Information Services department at ESTEC for many years. He holds a Ph.D. in library and information science from Loughborough University of Technology, Loughborough, England, and is a Fellow of the (British) Library Association as well as a Fellow of the Institute of Information Scientists. He is editor of The Electronic Library, a journal he founded nearly 20 years ago. He is also co-chair of the Internet Librarian International conference held in London, and chair of the annual World Wide Web Applications conference held in Johannesburg, South Africa. In addition, he was chairman of the International Online Information Meeting in London from 1983-1999. His e-mail address is

[Editor's Note: This article is an updated and expanded version of a paper presented at the 11th International Conference on New Information Technology, 18-20 August, 1999, in Taipei, Taiwan.]

1. Digital Library Federation. A working definition of digital library. 1998.

Web Sites
Biblioteca Universalis

British Library Digital Library Programme

Candle project

Candle Web site

Center for Digital Library Research

Churchill: The Evidence

Clásicos Tavera project

Denmark's Electronic Research Library

Decomate II demonstration Web site

Decomate II project

Decomate II Web site

Dieper project

Dieper Web site

Electronic Libraries (eLib) Programme

FinELib—Finnish National Electronic Library

Fundación Histórica Tavera project

Gallica project

German Digital Libraries Project Web site

Koninklijke Bibliotheek Digitization Plan

Memoria Hispanica project

Miracle project

Miracle Web site

National Library of Scotland digitization projects

Project Runeberg

Russian State Library Information Tacis Project

Russian State Library Information System

Telematics for Libraries program

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