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This position paper supports the consultation of the European Commission and underlines elements critical to executing the Europeana Strategy 2020-2025 and to realising the potential of digital cultural heritage for the recovery of Europe.  

We believe that work must be underpinned by a long term approach, that includes sustainable funding structures and which supports:  

  • coordinated national digital strategies for the cultural heritage sector

  • targets for data quality and quantity

  • the adoption of standards to enable access, reuse and engagement - particularly in education, research and the creative sector

  • capacity-building efforts across the cultural heritage sector 

  • strong infrastructures that reflect the role of national aggregators and Europeana 

Our hope is for a new Recommendation that commits the Commission and the Member States to support the sector in realising the digital transformation for the full benefit of Europe, the cultural heritage sector and its citizens.

Context COVID-19

The European Commission’s consultation on Opportunities Offered By Digital Technologies For The Cultural Heritage Sector comes at a critical moment. Not only is the sector facing a host of practical everyday impacts from the COVID-19 crisis, it also has to find ways to maximise and amplify its role in enabling Europe's recovery. 

The crisis has underlined the importance of digital access for cultural heritage institutions as well as the role and power of cultural heritage in society. Faced with the immediate impacts of the pandemic, many heritage institutions and organisations across Europe rose to the challenge, rapidly responding by shifting their physical services to digital and staying connected to their audiences through digital culture channels.

In turn, the public responded with an explosion of homemade cultural phenomena online, based on art and history and facilitated through digital access. This, often reciprocal, engagement supports much of the existing evidence for the powerful socio-economic role that digital cultural heritage plays, in addition to the more traditional role of museums, archives and libraries for both local residents and tourists. This was further evidenced in the classroom, where the availability of, and access to, digital heritage enabled online learning.

We may say that we saw a glimpse of what Europe looks like when it is powered by culture - supporting a resilient, growing economy, increased employment, improved well-being and a sense of European identity.

These efforts were made possible by building on the foundations of digital transformation that had been laid over the past decade. As the ‘new normal’ evolves, it is clear that creating a strong digital foundation for all cultural heritage institutions is more important than ever, and that it is absolutely vital to the future of the sector and the recovery and future of Europe. 

It is critical that this increased relevance of the cultural heritage sector - as set out in the European Heritage Alliance Manifesto -  is acknowledged in the new Recommendation, and further development of the digital transformation supported to maximise its impact. 

Achievements and challenges

The 2011 Recommendation on the digitisation and online accessibility of cultural material and digital preservation provided an important policy instrument aimed at enhancing digitisation efforts among the Member States in a concerted way and has undoubtedly contributed to: 

  • raising the  amount  of openly accessible digitised cultural heritage content; 

  • supporting Europeana as a focal point for European collaboration and knowledge exchange in cutting-edge areas like metadata interoperability, linked data, copyright reform, end-user engagement and impact assessment;

  • stirring the development of national and thematic aggregators that coordinate and amplify relevant developments in their respective countries and domains. 

As such, it should be seen as a major contribution to the leading position Europe has in the field of digital cultural heritage today. Indeed in some areas, resultant activity goes beyond what was originally foreseen, for example in the use of digital material in education.

Looking to the future we need to also acknowledge that some areas that the current Recommendation sought to address have not yet been adequately met.  

For example, at this point, the European copyright landscape remains unharmonised. However, proper implementation of the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive should correct this situation, addressing remaining challenges and meeting the goals on the availability of public domain works. We are hopeful that countries will contribute to harmonisation throughout the Directive’s transposition period ending June 2021.

Other areas still require ongoing focus and effort. Key issues include:

  • Digitisation targets have not been met consistently across Member States. One consequence of this is an imbalance in the representativeness of the Europeana collections, with only a limited amount of objects accessible from some countries and not all citizens able to find their region or country adequately represented. 

  • Only 10-20% of the estimated heritage holdings have in fact been digitised (ENUMERATE). As a result, only a fraction are available through the Europeana collections. This is insufficient for the creation of a strong digital public space.

A future Recommendation can and should recognise the outstanding issues in today’s digitisation and digital preservation landscape, as it focuses on shaping that landscape for today and for the future.

Responding to an evolving landscape

The current Recommendation was drafted almost ten years ago and shaped against a different digital and socio-economic landscape. The Recommendation’s focus on digitisation, access and preservation reflects the ambition of the sector, as well as the political, technological and financial parameters of that time. 

A decade on, the landscape has changed dramatically and at pace, with public expectations around digital access changing rapidly. The speed at which digital technology has evolved over this period must teach us that structural frameworks that support an evolving response are essential, if the results of future efforts are to have longevity and sustainability. 

Importantly, we also now understand that the opportunities provided by digital technologies for cultural heritage must be viewed in the context of the wider socio-economic challenges that society faces, including promoting critical engagement that fosters inclusivity, equality, diversity and understanding. Cultural heritage can provide historical context to such debates. Addressing global issues such as climate change cannot be seen as belonging to separate realms, but rather as key areas of research, education and knowledge-sharing shared across many sectors. Democratising access to cultural heritage means doing so in a traceable and unbiased manner  that recognises and is able to address the growing threats of fake news, and the challenges of algorithmic bias.     

Digital transformation

Addressing digital in a coherent way in this changed and complex landscape is a challenge shared across society and sectors. This is evidenced in the European Commission’s focus on supporting Europe’s ‘digital transformation’, as seen in its Digital Agenda and now its vision for a future Europe based on the twin pillars of a green and digital transition. 

What digital transformation means and requires necessarily varies from sector to sector and their respective challenges.

In the context of this paper, we can understand digital transformation as the act of adopting digital technology or digital thinking to significantly transform an organisation’s operation, or the reframing of the organisation to be inherently digital in its purpose, or both.

As stated in the Europeana Strategy 2020-2025, for the cultural heritage sector digital transformation is therefore not just about technology and assets or how cultural heritage institutions operate - it is about how they think and about people and skills.  

Consequently, key areas such as digitisation, digital preservation and digital access must be addressed in their wider context and not in isolation.  

For example, digitisation of cultural heritage assets is a complex process that spans all areas of operation, from collections management to logistics, from human resources management to marketing and communications, and also requires the digitisation of institutional processes and workflows. 

A coherent approach requires a fundamental understanding of the relationship we want to have with our audiences, of digital skills, and the ability to evaluate choices, including which platforms and information channels to use. It requires a new open culture of working and collaborating. 

If we consider that the immediate response to the COVID-19 crisis required staff in many institutions to take on - at speed -  digital responsibilities that they had never been trained for, we see the emerging need for cultural heritage institutions to be able to develop and build on that capacity. And we must acknowledge that not all institutions have been able to respond in the same way. The digital divide sits not only between large and small institutions but also within institutions and between European Member States. 

Importantly, if Europe’s broader ambitions are to be met, it also means developing policy that promotes a more equitable and democratic digital environment, where basic liberties and rights are protected online, where sovereignty of data is protected, where strong public institutions function in the public interest, and where people have a say in how their digital environment functions and are able to participate more fully in its creation and use.

Policy focus for the new Recommendation

The COVID-19 crisis may have created myriad and ongoing challenges for the cultural heritage sector but it also shone a light on the sector’s strengths, including its ability to respond under pressure, and the huge potential that exists for the sector to help drive Europe’s future recovery in key areas. 

Europe is in a unique position to reap the benefits of the digital transformation in the most positive way, following significant investments over the past 20 years in digital cultural heritage.

This includes Europeana as its flagship project, a model that has since been copied internationally. The strategy for the further development of the Europeana Initiative is supported and executed by the three main partners in the Initiative, and backed by its network of thousands of cultural heritage professionals - a community of practice which provides a strong foundation for digital cultural heritage in Europe. 

The role of Member States has been critical to shaping and incentivising the implementation of the existing Recommendation. The importance of Member States in this capacity should be central to any future Recommendation, as should support for strong national infrastructures to reach cultural heritage institutions. Applying an inclusive understanding of infrastructure that goes beyond technical elements to include approaches such as adopting common standards, will be key.

In this context, the Europeana Foundation, Network Association and Aggregators’ Forum, collectively representing the Europeana Initiative, strongly support policy development that promotes structural and sustainable solutions in the following areas:

1. Coordinated national strategies

While some countries have established a national strategy for digital cultural heritage, the majority of EU Member States have not, resulting in differing approaches to digital cultural heritage. For example, standardisation of data on a central level is supported by frameworks such as the Europeana Licensing Framework, however adoption of those standards is inconsistent across Member States. Equally, while the majority of EU Member States have established some form of national aggregation, a significant proportion have not, and not all aggregators are resourced appropriately. 

The European sector would be strengthened if all Member States were required to design and publish strategies, which:

  1. are national, multi-annual and forward-looking on digitisation and digital preservation;
  2. embrace the big challenges of our times: social and economic inequalities, rising nationalism, climate change, the impact of tourism overloads in cities and fragile areas, algorithmic and Artificial Intelligence (AI) biases and resultant injustices, deep fakes, and fake news;
  3. promote the adoption of standards developed in cooperation with Europeana as integral to the strategy. This should include encouraging wider uptake of the Europeana Publishing Framework, the Europeana Licensing Framework, and standards such as the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and SPARQL endpoints which are necessary to interconnect to other systems using Linked Data and APIs;
  4. support and develop the role of national aggregators as capacity-building hubs, digital services’ providers, requirements and standards-setting bodies in each Member State;
  5. involve the educational, creative and research communities in setting the priorities for the digitisation agenda;
  6. include and address born-digital content and adopt binding measures for digital preservation;
  7. adopt a human-centric and ethical approach to AI, further developed at EU level for cultural heritage and based on the European Commission’s White paper on Artificial Intelligence - A European approach to excellence and trust; 
  8. envisage DCHE biennial country reporting.

2. Resilient infrastructure and investment in research

A coherent sectoral approach to infrastructure and research that promotes and supports the twin pillars of the green and digital transition is necessary, and should include funding and support for:

  1. sustainable, cost-effective, green infrastructures on an EU and Member State level that are in line with the vision of the Net Generation Internet;
  2. use of advanced digitisation technologies in the sector, e.g. AI, semantic web, 3D and Mixed Reality; 
  3. heritage institutions to improve their capability to manage, preserve and make accessible complex digital objects (games, webvideo, software);
  4. the adoption of translation tools for multimodal heritage objects (text, image, audiovisual) in all European languages that enable cross-lingual search and analysis,  ensuring truly pan-European access to cultural heritage; 
  5. research and legislation that support the creation of a more equitable and democratic future internet and explainable AI systems; 
  6. investment in fundamental and applied research (through Horizon Europe) in digital technologies to create more engaging, personalised, connecting experiences, as set out  in the Europeana Research Agenda.

3. Capacity-building

Developing and delivering an effective framework  for digital capacity-building across the cultural heritage sector will be a key element in addressing the digital divide. Such a framework should:

  1. be delivered by Europeana in consultation with the Member States;
  2. acknowledge that building digital capacity requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses digital skills at a range of levels, including copyright, ethics and privacy issues, and looks to a ‘softer’ skill set that includes culture and leadership; 
  3. take into account the varied levels of competence across countries and institutions. A basic model of digital competence levels should be applied to assess the differing needs of cultural heritage institutions;
  4. include curation and digital strategy development to fulfil the potential of digital collections and galvanise user engagement; 
  5. be rolled out and benchmarked across the EU Member States.

4. Improving data quality

Approaches to digitisation and documentation need to recognise and meet the ever-expanding needs of users and acknowledge the legacy of poor quality data produced in the early days of digitisation. 

Support for the sector in this area requires: 

  1. binding per country digitisation targets for both quality and quantity of data, and contribution to Europeana;
  2. multi-annual funding instruments for mass digitisation on a Member State level, and included in national strategies;
  3. recognition of the importance of tangible cultural heritage. The tangible, intangible and digital dimensions of cultural heritage are inseparable and interconnected as recognised by The European Year of Cultural Heritage and the subsequent European Framework for Action on Cultural Heritage
  4. a balanced approach to 3D (monuments and sites in particular) that recognises its importance to the corpus of documentary (2D) and intangible heritage, and views it in that context, not in isolation; 
  5. active measures at EU level to balance the digital divide between the different Member States.

5. Access and user engagement

Increasing access and user engagement is key to maximising the impact of digital cultural heritage in society. Success in this area requires:

  1. strengthening the link between digital cultural heritage and the wider cultural and creative industries, in particular in domains such as education, academic publishing, data-driven journalism, design, games, and city marketing where the use of heritage collections has significant potential;
  2. continued prominence of the availability and reusability of public domain works through further measures to increase the online accessibility of public domain material, including an ambitious transposition of Article 14, Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive
  3. continued work on and support for the Europeana Impact Framework to provide a robust methodology at institutional and sectoral level for the measurement and demonstration of the socio-cultural impact of digital cultural heritage;.
  4. recognition that, while national aggregation remains essential, aggregating collections at the European level can provide key added value, for example by enabling diaspora communities to have a more comprehensive view on their heritage and for that heritage to be more widely shared;
  5. support from all Member States for joint pan-European campaigns around major themes (migration, gender equality, sports, etc.) to be developed via the Europeana Initiative;
  6. strengthening of citizen science and crowdsourcing to increase community engagement in digital collection selection and curation.

6. Modernising the legal framework

The modernisation of the legal framework supporting access to and use of digital cultural heritage is an ongoing need and process. For example, the complexity of the Orphan Works Directive has meant that cultural heritage institutions have struggled to make use of the orphan works exception. As a result, the hoped-for accessibility of orphan works has not yet materialised.

Cultural heritage institutions and users will benefit from: 

  1. an evaluation of the suitability of the Orphan Works Directive, and consideration of the need for its replacement;
  2. increased Member State support for the adoption of standardised copyright information for digital cultural heritage online, for example, through embedding  the adoption and use of rights statements and Creative Commons licences and tools as a condition of funding schemes;
  3. the increased availability of out-of-commerce works, through support for dialogue amongst cultural heritage institutions, rights holders and collective management organisations, in line with the Copyright in the Digital Single Market Directive

7. Strengthening the Initiative

Building on their investment to date and strengthening the Europeana Initiative to ensure its future contribution to the sector requires the Commission and Member States to:

  1. continue to support Europeana in playing a coordinating role in all areas of activity around digital transformation of the cultural heritage sector in the EU;
  2. support new members, especially SMEs and cultural heritage institutions without substantial digital collections to join Europeana;
  3. increase EU financial investment in the Europeana Initiative in order to effectively implement the Europeana Strategy 2020-2025;
  4. consider establishing another ‘Comité des Sages’ to revisit the New Renaissance report in the context of the new socio-cultural and technological realities.

A sustainable framework

To maximise the potential of digitisation across the cultural heritage sector, we will require a long-term sustained effort. Maintaining a coherent and consistent approach to such an initiative will, in turn, require a sustained and adequate level of funding at EU and Member State level.

Over the past decade, public-private partnerships in digitisation have yet to produce viable business models to create consistent support, so cultural heritage digitisation remains a public sector endeavour. Unfortunately, the availability of EU funding for the digitisation of cultural heritage assets has decreased significantly in recent years and in many cases the gap in financial support has not been picked up by Member States.

The focus of funding for existing digitisation efforts has often been on specific short-term projects. The result is that digital repositories collapse altogether as technology becomes obsolete and servers die, while expertise evaporates post-project as technical support ceases.

The sector needs strategic long-term support that includes sustainable funding structures that safeguard the sovereignty of our data and the public values that underpin our efforts. Such an approach could:

  • include funding accredited national aggregators as digital services’ providers with responsibilities for standards-setting;

  • reflect Europeana’s role in enabling and coordinating related activities that support the sector’s digital transformation.

In turn, this would support essential components of the cultural heritage sector’s digital transformation: coordinated national strategies, reaching targets for data quality as well as quantity, the adoption of standards to enable access and reuse, strong infrastructures, and capacity-building efforts across the sector. 

No matter what the exact form of the solution, it must be able to rely on a consistent and coherent funding framework to deliver to the sector’s full potential.