Culture is future » Innovation and digital


DEBATES 2011 - Referencing, prescription of cultural contents - Europeana, can you help me find the right cultural information?

Assume that I decide to write a paper on the representations of the Iris flower in the History of Art. Where can I start my research? Let’s Google for instance “painters” and “iris”. I get 6,300,000 results in 0,11 seconds. But my best hit is a collection of some paintings representing an iris, of which I will need to find the different authors. The following items are even less relevant (for example, I realize that there is a painter whose surname is Iris). 

The notorious search engine cannot be blamed for this: it has efficiently performed its function of displaying all the pertaining documents available online on the issue. Apparently, no one before me has asked the search engine this same question.

The problem is not how the information is retrieved: it is how the information is digitally represented. Right now, the great majority of the World Wide Web is still formed by an enormous amount of documents containing data. For the past few decades, Tim Berners Lee, the creator of the WWW, has advocated for a different structure of information. Information could be represented as raw data, which would be much more useful and could then take the form of countless documents, according to the different needs and wishes. 

Some cultural institutions are already representing the data about their digital objects in a way that enables semantic searches. However, when different institutions from many countries are involved, countless interoperability problems arise because of the diverse standards for describing digital items. It takes a long time and a huge coordination effort to give human knowledge a very consistent structure, a structure that allows a machine to easily find the right information. 

In order to create an Europe-wide data set of different forms of digitized cultural heritage, the European Union has created a project called Europeana, chaired by Bruno Racine and is supporting its development. More than 17 million items can already be accessed through Europeana, and more work is in progress. Will this project be the steering agent that paves the way for a semantic representation of data in the cultural heritage field? We hope so.


A contribution of the University of Bologna/Anna Cocchi

Credits: Europeana