Europe needs to open up to the digital value of its cultural legacy

Open licences for heritage data can realise real social and economic benefits...

It's time to remove the obstacles that are blocking the considerable potential of open data generated by Europe's museums, libraries and archives, says Harry Verwayen.

The EU recently held its first Digital Agenda Assembly to monitor progress on Europe 2020, its strategy for a flourishing digital economy. The assembly recognised the economic contribution that reusing data created by the public sector for commercial purposes could provide, citing a 2006 study that estimated that the reuse of public sector information had the potential to generate some €27bn in turnover.

At Europeana, the EC-funded digital library, museum and archive, we believe the cultural heritage sector can make an important contribution by providing data sets for new digital applications. We're developing business models to show heritage institutions the advantages of releasing their data under an open licence to realise real social and economic benefits.


Libraries hold valuable digitised data which could be used by developers to create innovative resourcesPhoto: Shutterstock

Institutions such as libraries, museums and archives create large amounts of authoritative, descriptive data about their digitised books and works of art. This data can be used by developers to create innovative resources in, for example, tourism and education.

Reusing data in new apps has the potential to generate new businesses and jobs, providing greater value from material held in public collections and giving consumers engaging new ways to access and interact with it.

However, as the principal aggregator of data about Europe's digitised cultural assets, Europeana can currently only make its data set available for non-commercial purposes.

While some cultural heritage institutions can see the long-term social and economic benefit of releasing data under an open licence, others are reluctant to cede complete control in the short term. They are concerned about who profits from what, in an online environment in which commercial, not-for-profit and non-commercial boundaries are increasingly permeable.

By restricting the licensing of their data, institutions believe they can control the contexts it appears in and how it can be used. They may also consider that, in the long term, opportunities may come along in which they can develop ways of commercialising the data themselves.

Although these considerations are understandable, there is a serious risk of being sidelined as application innovations gather momentum, and developers focus on more openly licensed data sets. Worse, if cultural heritage institutions don't expose their data in the ways that the digital natives want to use it, they risk becoming irrelevant to the next generation.

Right now, Europe's cultural institutions are nearing the tipping point. The great majority are recognising that...

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