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2 minutes to read Posted on Friday December 17, 2021

Updated on Monday November 6, 2023

portrait of Beth Daley

Beth Daley

Editorial Adviser , Europeana Foundation

portrait of Elisabeth Niggemann

Elisabeth Niggemann

Former Director General of the German National Library , Retired

portrait of Joke van der Leeuw-Roord

Joke van der Leeuw-Roord

Founder and Special Advisor , EUROCLIO - European Association of History Educators

Outgoing chair and treasurer reflect on their time on the Europeana Foundation board

As the Europeana Foundation begins a new chapter of its story, with Martina Bagnoli taking on the role of Supervisory Board Chair, Elisabeth Niggemann and Joke van der Leeuw-Roord - two long-standing, highly respected and influential Supervisory Board members who will step down in early 2022 - reflect on their time working with and guiding the development of the Europeana Foundation.

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Elisabeth Niggemann and Joke van der Leeuw-Roord
Europeana Foundation
The Netherlands

Can you tell us a bit about your roles with the Europeana Foundation?  

Elisabeth: In 2007, I was chairing the Conference of National Librarians, which had a platform called The European Library. The European Commission asked us if we would be willing to use it as a test platform and develop Europeana. So I grew into being the first chair of Europeana. In 2011, I stepped back because I believe in change and was asked four years ago if I’d be the chair again. 

Joke: Everyone was extremely happy that you were willing to! I first walked into the Foundation without much knowledge about it at all. When we set up the Europeana Network Association, I was on its Management Board for four years. Then I became Vice-Chair of the Europeana Foundation because I had specialised in finance and governance issues. So my role evolved from that of an outsider to a userful pillar for the Foundation. With Elisabeth as chair, it was a fantastic journey. 

Why is Europeana special to you? 

Elisabeth: Europeana gave me the opportunity to combine my passion about Europe with my profession as a librarian. I believe in culture as the most important element that keeps us Europeans together, more than the Euro or finance and trade. But to convince people in their hearts, it’s culture and history - always. 

Joke: One of the things that is difficult in cultural heritage is that access is not very democratic. Cultural heritage institutions can be very expensive for the public to access and if you look at collections, they were not created democratically. I want people to enjoy cultural heritage without having to pay, and in particular, to increase its opportunities for use in education. Europeana is an important platform in that process.

Can you tell us about a particular highlight from your time with the Europeana Foundation? 

Elisabeth: I was fortunate to be there when Europeana launched for the first time in Brussels. We held a ceremony for the Commissioner and a huge and very important crowd. Then - as we all know - the server broke down because so many people clicked and wanted to search and it was all over the media the next day - huge success, server went down. That was exciting. It was a case study of how to work together  with high politicians and with the media. It’s one of the highlights of my whole career.

I was also very proud to be asked to be on the Comité des Sages expert group because of my role with Europeana. With the Commission, we developed recommendations that were published and handed over to politicians in a very high profile ceremony. The recommendations are still quoted even though it was some time ago. 

Joke: When I first came into Europeana, I didn’t understand what was going on - the abbreviations, who the people were. I felt totally inadequate. But I found my feet when I realised I had a good understanding of the structural elements of the organisation. I then started to look at the Foundation’s statutes and goals and how to make it more democratic. So I’m proud that although initially I felt I had no role to play, I can look back at bringing all these interesting people together to develop a really good working structure. I think that’s very satisfying. 

What do you think the greatest challenges facing Europeana and digital cultural heritage are right now?

Elisabeth: How to measure success. If you want to get funding or cooperation, it is important to show your success. At the beginning, it was relatively easy, it was the quantity of metadata from digital items. That soon developed into use rates. Now it’s reuse. I sympathise with that idea but what is the benchmark for that? If it is not numbers, what kind of stories are accepted as success? We continuously have to find new answers to prove success. That’s a real challenge because we need to satisfy those who give the money and those who work with Europeana.

Joke: For me, it’s to do with the collections themselves. Europe has wonderful digital collections but the quality is not always very good, nor is it diverse - it’s heavily on the western European side - and that’s not on Europeana, that’s down to the digitisation done by the different Member States. But countries now have to pay the bill for all the COVID-19 measures they have taken and for countries with small budgets, digitisation might become a luxury again so I fear that the imbalance in collections might get even bigger.

What are the biggest positive changes you’ve seen in digital cultural heritage during your time with the Europeana Foundation? 

Elisabeth: Working together across domains has become something that is normal, at least in digital. People have learned that you can’t just stay within your community, your comfort zone, you have to reach out to work together with all the others even though they have different traditions, like in technical formats, cataloguing rules or professional education. 

There was a long discussion about whether it’s good or bad to put something online for free, especially for museums who often need to generate income from onsite visits. Now it seems to be a common view that you attract more users, customers and visitors if you have a wonderful internet presence and you share things and people find you on all kinds of platforms. 

Copyright was very important from the beginning, we did a huge campaign for free access for things that are out-of-copyright. The open access drive for copyright-free material, and the sharing among institutions and across the borders of a domain are real improvements and Europeana has a huge share in that development. 

Joke: For me, it’s that with COVID-19, the sense that digitisation is an expensive luxury disappeared. People started to understand how important it is to have all of this digitisation in place - the world changed and this was vital, it was one of the only opportunities to enjoy cultural heritage. This showed us all of a sudden why Europeana is there. It hasn’t always been easy to convince people that digitising cultural heritage was important, but now people see how indispensable it is.

What is your wish for the sector for the next few years? 

Elisabeth: First, I’ve long been worried that if cultural heritage is defined by copyright rules, then our history from the last 70 years - and in most cases many more - cannot be shown digitally without prohibitively time-consuming rights clearance procedures. That’s much too long. So I would like to see the national implementations of the Out-of-Commerce-works articles in the Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market so that artifacts that  are no longer in commercial use can easily be made open and freely available on public, not-for-profit cultural platforms like Europeana. 

Second, I’d like to see faster development in the implementation of automated translation and artificial intelligence. With the right technology, we can link metadata and combine everything that’s held on a person, topic or place, in any language so we can see it all together. I’ve been hoping for automatic translation and classification and subject indexing for my whole librarian’s career and that’s a long time. I would really love a breakthrough and a big success in that field for us in the cultural sector. 

Joke: My first wish is that the Foundation develops itself as the innovation instrument of the cultural heritage arena and all those who want to use it. The Commission has specific technical requests and policies, for instance to do with 3D, while the sector might be talking about the influence of climate change or inclusion. The Europeana Foundation as an organisation is forward-looking and has insights into both the near and further future. I think it’s important that the Foundation finds its own clear position and creates its own very strong identity, delivering both what the Commission and the sector need. 

My second wish is for education. We’ve been talking about digitisation in education since the early ‘90s. If I compare the opportunities available through Europeana with what’s actually being used, I see a big gap. I hope the education community will continue to explore what can be done here.