„When It Comes to Cultural Heritage, Digitization Alone Is Not Enough“

  • News from 08.03.2017

    The Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, or DDB, is a digital platform for Germany's cultural and scientific heritage. Approximately 20.5 million books, documents, images, and audio recordings are currently available on their website. Frank Frischmuth, managing director of the DDB, tells us of their plans for 2017, their strategy for the future, and the opportunities he sees for open cultural data.

    Frank FrischmuthFrank Frischmuth © DDB / Reynaldo Paganelli

    What new initiatives have you planned for the DDB this year?

    Over the course of the year, we'll be releasing another sizable amount of cultural data on our website. We also expect to be partnering with a large number of new institutions. On top of that, we're planning two new projects. Firstly, we want to integrate the DFG viewer into the DDB website. The viewer was developed with funds from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) specifically for presenting data from research and cultural institutions. Right now, when a user finds an object and wants to view it at a higher resolution, the image opens in one of several types of window, depending on the institution that the object comes from. But with the help of a standardized interface based on the DFG viewer, that is going to change. Secondly, we're planning to publish a DDB magazine, which we hope will make it easier for new DDB users to get started. The magazine will offer a range of articles on various topics related to the DDB and present them attractively. Apart from these two projects, there will also be a series of practical, front-end improvements to the website, including better search functionality. So, all in all, the DDB platform will be more user-friendly by the end of 2017, and feature more interesting quick-start tutorials.

    Can you tell us about the ongoing improvements to the technical infrastructure at the DDB?

    Up until the end of August 2017, we're working on bringing our IT infrastructure up to date. We've already received funding as a special project grant from the federal government. We're introducing state-of-the-art equipment that will allow us to integrate the many new cultural institutions that will be partnering with the DDB in the coming years, to administer their content, and to accelerate all the related processes. On top of that, we want to provide a user-operated component that will improve data processing, the import of updates, and more. For 2017 and subsequent years, the Länder have agreed to support the DDB's continued development with additional funding of 400,000 euros annually. 

    Not only are you creating access to the digitized items of Germany's cultural institutions, you're also building a framework that makes it possible to connect these items in new ways. Can you give us some recent examples?

    In our online exhibitions, we're linking digital items to each other and putting those items in context. Several large exhibitions are planned for this year – one about the First World War, and another that was recently launched under the title, Grimm from A to Z – What the Brothers Grimm didn't tell us. Using sources from a wide variety of cultural institutions and collections, including illustrations, graphics, audio recordings, and visual material, it tells the story of the brothers' lives and how they collected their famous fairy tales. What's more, we're working on a new layout for our online exhibitions, so that in the future they'll look even more attractive. 

    Do cultural institutions still need platforms of their own for their digital collections?

    While the DDB can complement those platforms, it can in no way replace them. Cultural institutions define themselves through their collections and naturally want them to be seen in the context of their own digital communications. What's special to the DDB is that we can juxtapose objects from different institutions, showing them in wholly new contexts. The DDB's collection is exceptionally wide-ranging, with items from museums, conventional libraries, archives, media libraries, memorial foundations and research institutions. This enables us to provide a big-picture, multi-disciplinary view of our cultural heritage that a single institution would not be able to achieve.

    What makes the DDB different from the bpk-Bildagentur (Picture Agency bpk), which also has data from museums, libraries, and archives? 

    The bpk-Bildagentur sells digitized objects – including copyrighted items – for commercial purposes. While the bpk's customers are active in publishing media and the media sector, we provide our data to the public and to research and academic institutions on the condition that it not be used commercially. This is part of what makes the DDB unique – the inspiring idea of making Germany's cultural heritage accessible to everyone free of cost, without the need to make any income or profit.

    What opportunities do you see for open cultural data? 

    The DDB supports initiatives that seek to publish open cultural data online for public re-use – in as much as copyright law and the rights holder allow it. As a rule, this data comes from public collections. These collections have been assembled and cataloged using public funds. The digital copies and indexing information should therefore be made available for re-use by the public free of cost. 

    What role does the DDB play in making open data available for re-use?

    The DDB has an application programming interface (API) that it makes available to third parties, who can utilize it to access our data and then re-use it in their own applications. The only condition is that they register with a key so that we can prevent potential misuse. To encourage young developers to use open cultural data, we have partnered with Wikimedia, Open Knowledge Foundation, and digis Berlin (the digitization service provider of the City of Berlin) to create a special programming project we're calling „Coding da Vinci“. During this „cultural hackathon“, young developers and designers can program new applications using open data from different cultural institutions. I'm sure you remember ChirpyClock, the alarm clock app that won't turn off until you've matched the song to the right bird. The developers used bird song recordings from the Berlin Museum for Natural History in a completely new context. The winners of last year’s competition presented an app that used facial recognition technology to pair a selfie in seconds with the best matching portrait from historical collections. 

    Will the hackathon take place again this year?

    We held the first two cultural hackathons in Berlin and a „Coding da Vinci North“ last year in Hamburg. We're planning to have several hackathons in different cities in 2017. Thanks to „Coding da Vinci“, more and more cultural institutions, along with political decision makers, are becoming familiar with the DDB and the issue of open cultural data. That is a very welcome development for a couple reasons. It opens up opportunities to obtain funding for the cultural hackathon that will secure its future. Also, it may inspire more institutions to present their open cultural data to the public in new and different ways.

    Does that mean that there's a huge demand for re-using cultural data?

    Yes, demand is growing steadily. This is thanks in part to the fact that we now have really interesting digital material. And it's also because a broader swathe of the public is interested in this kind of material. Just think of the ever-expanding maker community, for example. The fact that we've been able to bring a certain continuity to Coding da Vinci will also allow us to address new kinds of stakeholder – schools, for example. I'm already looking forward to that, as there is such huge potential in cultural data.

    Has this positive public image made it easier to attract new institutions who would make their data available to the DDB?

    Certainly. That said, however, the digitization movement in Germany is really just starting to take off. Some sectors, such as libraries and various museums, are already very well positioned. Other sectors have some catching up to do. I would estimate that less than 10 percent of Germany's cultural heritage has been digitized so far. And while it's true that we've collected quite a lot of data, there are still many objects hidden away in stacks and storerooms. This means that we need to develop a strategy: what are we actually going to do with all the data that we generate? 

    How can the DDB help to answer that question?

    The DDB will have to play a major role here. For one thing, we can support the cultural institutions that are driving digitization forward. We can also promote the use of standardized data formats and help to develop formats for re-using the newly generated data. When it comes to cultural heritage, digitization alone is not enough. If we want to see the benefits of a real digital revolution, then we need to look beyond merely making the data available and create ways to use it. Our efforts so far have been quite successful (especially given the limitations we currently face), thanks in part to the close cooperation we’ve enjoyed with Europeana, the European digital library. 

    In 2015, you published a strategy for the DDB going forward. How much progress have you made on that? 

    To be honest, we're still in the concept development stage for the measures that we prioritized in that strategy. We're only just starting to implement them. At the moment, all the funds available to us go toward keeping the DDB operational. We won't be able to accelerate our efforts at implementing the strategy until the necessary funds have been allocated. We would need a gradual increase in funds to about five million euros per year. 

    What is particularly important for the future of the DDB?

    When you look at the DDB website, you see the surface of a huge ocean of data, but organized and prepared for use. It is a great challenge to process that data in such a way that it will remain permanently retrievable and free of errors. But we're not just working to develop and expand the DDB. It is in everyone's interest to put the DDB on a permanent operational footing with appropriate funding and to accord it the status of an independent legal entity. That is the only way it can play its part in ensuring that the task of digitizing our shared cultural heritage and making it available to the public is not left exclusively to market forces.

    The interview was conducted by Julia Lerche.

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