EUROPE: Digital library on track despite launch flop

It lasted less than a day and ended in apparent humiliation but, believe it or not, the launch of the European digital library Europeana has been hailed a success story. The site collapsed on 20 November because the servers could not cope with the torrent of demand. Now, all being well, it will be back before Christmas "bigger and better than ever" said a spokesman for the European Commission which is behind the idea.

It would seem that Brussels woefully underestimated the potential demand for European cultural artefacts. Europeana was originally conceived in 2005 to serve as "a digital doorway to Europe's culture in all its glorious diversity", commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said at the launch.

More than 1,000 cultural institutions were committed to placing material free of charge on the site, including initially more than two million books, maps, recordings, photographs, archival documents, paintings and films from national libraries and cultural institutions of the 27 EU member states.

The new digital library will open up new ways of exploring Europe's heritage to all those interested in literature, art, science, politics, history, architecture, music or cinema, giving them "free and fast access to Europe's greatest collections and masterpieces in a single virtual library through a web portal available in all EU languages," the commission declared.

Some EUR2 million (US$2.52 million) a year of EU funding has been allocated although the hope is to engage the private sector with cultural and financial donations. Google seems an obvious partner: the company speaks of extending its Book Search project through Europeana to provide texts of more than seven million books and develop the markets for out-of-print titles.

It is not quite plain sailing though as there will be copyright problems. The Brussels objective is to have 10 million "objects" available by 2010. The amount of potential material is virtually unlimited but the flow is likely to be held back as owners weigh the consequences of ceding commercial control for the sake of the common good.

And until the system is firmly off the ground there will be doubts about the technical system. Martin Selmayr, commission spokesman for the information society, told University World News there were no serious technical problems.

"The three servers could not cope with demand in the region of 10 million hits per hour when we had expected about five million. It is a question of capacity," Selmayr said.

Labour MEP Mary Honeyball commented that the European digital library was "a victim of its own success". She said the commission had been flabbergasted at the popularity of the site. Ultimately, though, this was a success story: "It would have been far worse if the commission had overestimated the interest for this site and spent EU funds unnecessarily," she said.

Elisabeth Niggemann, Director-General of the German National Library and chair of the European Digital Library Foundation, said Europeana would make cultural bodies "more relevant to the Web 2.0 generation - a generation that expects to be able to read text, see video, hear sounds and view images all in the same space and time".