The missing decades: the 20th century black hole in Europeana

13 November 2015 Comment

For the last couple of years librarians have talked about a 20th century black hole when trying to describe the effect that copyright has on making cultural heritage available online (it appears that the concept was first used publicly by Prof. James Boyle in a 2009 column for the Financial Times).

At Europeana we are able to show the 20th century black hole in our dataset by looking at the temporal distribution of works within the dataset. We did so in a first analysis that we undertook in May 2012 and we have just repeated this exercise at the request of the European Commission which is looking for evidence to assess the impact of copyright on the online availability of cultural heritage. Just as in 2012 we are seeing the concept of the 20th century black hole confirmed in our data.

Collections that consist of works dating from the 20th century or that contain large proportions of works from that period are available online to a much lesser degree than collections from the periods before or after the 20th century. We have analysed the Europeana dataset to explore this pattern and our findings show that there is a clear gap in availability of digitized material from the 20th century (a more extensive analysis, can be found in this factsheet):

Chronological distribution of dcterms:issued values in Europeana dataset (1800-today)


Graph: CC0

The above graph represents an analysis of the 7,300,000 objects in Europeana's dataset of 45 million objects that contain the most reliable information about the date of creation of the work. The graph gives an approximate breakdown of the numbers of items represented digitally in Europeana that were created in each year since 1800.

It is evident that the amount of cultural heritage made available online increases steadily from the 1800s to the second half of the 20th century. From the 1950s onwards, the amount of material that is made available online falls dramatically. While the first half of the 20th century represents 35% of the sample, the second half is only around 11%. These findings reinforce our earlier research (from 2012) and illustrate once more that cultural heritage institutions are hampered in their ability to make collections from the 20th century available online (for a more detailed analysis including a full description of the methods that were used in producing the above graph please refer to this factsheet).

While we cannot show a causal relationship between this and the way copyright law interacts with digitization efforts by cultural heritage institutions, feedback from Europeana data partners makes it clear that many cultural heritage institutions tend to avoid digitizing 20th century collections because of their often complicated copyright status.

For this reason Europeana and many of our Network members have been arguing that Europe's cultural heritage institutions need the legal space to do their work without always having to negotiate with copyright holders who are often impossible or prohibitively expensive to find.

In order to promote the online availability of cultural heritage from the 20th century, it is necessary to reduce the burden of rights clearance for these institutions. As we have argued in our recent letter to the European Commission this can be done by updating the existing exceptions to copyright that apply to cultural heritage institutions.