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2 minutes to read Posted on Monday July 30, 2018

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Emily D’Alterio

Emily D’Alterio

Former Editorial & PR Officer , Europeana Foundation

Who are we, Europeana, in this digital transformation?

Digital transformation is a phrase that's been reverberating through political spheres. But what exactly does it mean? And just where do we fit in this transformation? We posed these questions to Europeana Foundation Executive Director Harry Verwayen who spoke about values and impact and offered a more personal perspective into what it means to transform the world with culture on a daily basis.

main image
Multi-sized beads (constellation stained), fluorescence | Kevin Mackenzie, University of Aberdeen, Wellcome Collection, CC BY.
Kevin Mackenzie, University of Aberdeen
Wellcome Collection
United Kingdom

What is digital transformation?

When we discuss the digital transformation, sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint just what that means - let alone what it means for citizens in their daily lives. Is its importance cemented in the digital - with a focus on the capabilities of a new technological landscape? Or is it more important to focus on the aspects of social and cultural shifts - the much more abstract changes in behaviours, interaction and understanding?

For Executive Director Harry Verwayen, it’s all of these things. It’s the European Union supporting Europe in realising its full potential through new technologies. And it is making sure that we as Europeana in turn support that goal, specifically for the cultural heritage sector.

‘Digital transformation is an umbrella term that captures the impact of digital innovation on the ground in different sectors,’ says Harry, ‘but when we talk about digital transformation, we must also ask: transforming into what? And how? For us at Europeana, we do not simply apply technology, we apply it sensibly and with serious consideration to implementing our values.’

Shaping tech innovation with values

But how does this translate to our vision of a digital Europe?

  1. It means that content and technology needs to be accessible. It needs to be easy-to-use and open, otherwise, the reach of any social or economic impact will be limited to the privileged few. In action? This includes developing rights statements, such as those available through, to guide institutions and individuals how they can reuse digital cultural heritage objects.
  2. It means that technological innovation needs to be community-based and reciprocal. We need to work as a network, rather than as individuals, combining the best of sector knowledge and practices. Offline, this looks like the Europeana Network Association. In the digital, this is seen in the user-generated content uploaded as a part of the Europeana Migration campaign, whereby in addition to viewing Europeana’s digital cultural heritage, the public was invited to add to it.   
  3. It means that technology needs to work and be well-structured, with users and their data safeguarded. In practice, this means supporting the GDPR processes. It means improving data quality and providing support to network partners in taking their cultural heritage online.

For cultural heritage institutions, this also involves further shifting practices to the digital. While the shift has been progressing over the last 15-20 years, and some 300 million objects have been digitised, the fact still remains that we are in the midst of shifting an operating system to digital that has been analogue for the last 500 years. We are still operating from an analogue paradigm and we still need to empower the public to make use, reuse, or put simply, do things, with their heritage. Only 7% of digital cultural heritage is available for explicit reuse on social media, Wikimedia and so on. Europeana aims to accelerate these efforts through the implementation of frameworks, standards, projects and support.

'Digital transformation is something that happens to society, and if you want to accelerate that, you have to remove obstacles,’ says Harry, ‘I think one of them is a lack of understanding and skills, and that’s where I would like Europeana and its network to play a role. To transmit all of the knowledge that we gather and bring that to the sector.’

A ‘brilliant’ example of the digital transformation

For Harry, in particular, digital transformation can be readily exemplified through initiatives like Transcribathons. Transcribathons are competitions whereby teams (from schools, institutions or the general public) compete to transcribe handwritten texts online. Teams work on a digital object (for example, a diary from WWI) and a jury award points for the quantity and quality of the transcription and the presentation of the result, with a prize awarded to the winning team.

For him Transcribathons symbolise cultural impact: they transcend age, race and time, and bring both young and old together through a shared experience of cultural history, creating a new ritual. Furthermore, reading and engaging with the stories from the First World War creates a connection to the past that is deeply moving for those who participate. It changes the way people interact with their culture and their history; facilitated by the digital and transformed by the connection to cultural heritage.

‘I’m a huge fan of Transcribathons. They have an impact in many areas and are a way of making fantastic analogue content machine-readable, and therefore, translatable,’ says Harry, ‘but further, by going through this process, and this ritual, participants engage with each other and the past digitally in a way that has never been done before.’

Berlin Transcribathon 2017 interviews (music) from Europeana on Vimeo.

What makes us different?

For Europeana, our values are summarised in our mantra of usable, mutual, reliable. It is these values at the heart of Europeana that sets us apart from technological innovators of Silicon Valley - our focus on impact and a culturally rich and unified Europe.

‘Silicon Valley is really based on individualism and entrepreneurship, which certainly has some advantage,’ says Harry, ‘But Europeana is really here to build a common infrastructure and change from within.’

The democratisation of information through technology has and will lead to endless opportunity for transformation. It is up to us to make that change worthwhile by implementing our social values, European values, onto the great and complex technological frameworks we are building. By recognising the social power of our cultural heritage, we can make the most out of evolving technologies.