Eastern Europe Dawdles in Digital Culture

You probably haven't heard of it, but the European answer to Google's digitize-everything scheme isn't doing too badly. Launched last November, the EU's digital culture archive, Europeana, now houses 4.6 million items, from books to reproductions of artworks to videos, and aims to hit 10 million next year.

Europeana is still officially in the development phase, and will be until 2013, by which time the European Commission would like to see it at least partly self-financed. Admittedly, comparisons with Google Books are unfair since Europeana's total budget for its first three years, about 10 million euros, isn't much more than just the bonuses awarded to five Google (GOOG) executives this year. Think of Google Books as a confident teenager striding toward adulthood; Europeana at this point looks more like a youngster who's just dipped into the parents' booze supply.

Case in point: enter Charles Dickens in the search engine and you get about 125 items in total. Click down to what you're led to believe is the English-language material and links pop up to 14 texts – all in Hungarian. You can find the full text of a nicely illustrated 19th-century American edition of Dickens' travel books, but only by browsing through the offerings tagged as being in French. Search for "cubism" and Europeana delivers a dozen reproductions of mediocre paintings.

Another area where Europeana needs work is in its geographic spread. The site is heavily tilted toward Western Europe. Correction: heavily tilted toward France. French cultural institutions have uploaded nearly half the texts, artworks, and other items there, leaving Germany, the Netherlands, and Britain trailing well behind. It's not only the new member states that are slacking off, notes the Budapest Observatory, a tiny organization that specializes in the arcane area of EU cultural policy: Countries like Ireland and Denmark are down at the very bottom, contributing less than 0.1 percent each to Europeana. Among the new members, the most prosperous, Slovenia, is doing best, at 0.7 percent, followed by Estonia at 0.4 percent.

It's hardly to be expected that Central and Eastern European countries would be generous contributors to a cultural initiative at a time when they are fighting off financial perils on all fronts. But, as the Budapest Observatory points out in nearly every issue of its witty newsletter, in cultural matters the EU is anything but uniform, as by nearly any measure – state spending on culture, cross-border cultural projects, activity of non-profit cultural organizations – the northern and western members are a league ahead of the east.

Culture is one of those fields where the EU has decided to let members largely fend for themselves, like foreign policy and immigration. Anyway, the union's culture budget is a pittance. This year's budget line for "fostering European culture and diversity" is 226 million euros, or 45 cents per head.

But why is France the biggest booster of Europeana? Gossip in the cultural blogosphere explains this by the well-known French attitude toward uppity Americans – in this case, Google and its strategy of negotiating one-time fees for the rights to digitize whole libraries and publishers' catalogs. On the initiative of Germany, backed by France and Britain, the European Commission has scheduled a discussion for 7 September on the implications for intellectual property rights of Google's U.S. book digitization project and its plans to expand it to Europe. On the other hand, the EU commissioner for information society and the media, Viviane Reding, backs Google and has urged EU countries to step up their own digitization efforts.

Incidentally, that American edition of Dickens with its illustrations by the famous cartoonist Thomas Nast was provided to Europeana by the French National Library. Recently, the French press came out with a story that the guardian of France's literary legacy is talking with a private company about digitizing its archives. Guess who? Cliquez ici!

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