German Digital Library “A Strategy Is Needed for the Digitization Process”

Ute Schwens
Ute Schwens | Photo (detail): © dnb

Starting 2012, the German Digital Library is to be filled with content. This is one of the reasons why Germany needs a digitization strategy, explains Ute Schwens, director of the German National Library in Frankfurt am Main.

Ms Schwens, you gave a lecture at this year’s Convention of German Librarians entitled “Germany needs a digitization strategy”. Is digitization in Germany currently proceeding in a haphazard manner?

It goes without saying that the processes of digitization are already being undertaken in a carefully planned manner, generally in accordance with the guidelines issued by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The DFG, after all, is the organization which is most strongly promoting this move, and is highly scientific in terms of its orientation. From the perspective of the German Digital Library, however, the spectrum should be even wider.

So far relatively little digitized material has been included from archives, and virtually none from museums or from the areas of film and monument protection. These are important elements of the German Digital Library which we are in the process of establishing. There is as yet no overall picture of the type the German Digital Library is aiming for.

Prioritization and balance

Why does this necessitate a strategy?

Because funding will always be tight, for one thing, meaning that we will need to select and prioritize. For another thing, reasons of capacity will not allow everything to be done in one fell swoop. The digitization projects will have to be placed in order of priority. Digitization simply takes time, several years.

What would the sort of strategy you are hoping for actually address?

For me, the key questions are as follows: Where should digitization begin? And how can a certain balance be achieved right from the outset? After all, the process is supposed to encompass not only all the different sectors – such as libraries, museums, archives and monument protection – but also all the various thematic areas and user interests.

We must not focus too much on one particular sector or one particular type of material, as the target group – that is anyone who uses the Internet – has very broad-ranging interests. Ultimately, we do not want the German Digital Library to contain only text. Some users are more interested in music, film or museum collections, so it is important for us to strike the right balance.

Time planning and quality standards

And then there is the question of the actual schedule…

When it comes to determining the order in which to digitize which materials it is once again a question of maintaining a balance between the different institutions and subjects. In other words, it is about priorities and defining appropriate criteria. It is not only questions of content that play a role, but political arguments too, such as how this content is distributed among Germany’s federal states.

Another important area is to agree on the quality criteria for the content to be digitized. As regards technical questions, a framework also needs to be defined if digitized content of varying origin is to be incorporated into a single overall complex.

Role models in other countries?

Have other countries already developed such strategies?

For a number of reasons it is not possible to compare other countries with the situation in Germany – because they have a centralized organization, for example, or simply because they are smaller. Take France: at most two or three institutions there are carrying out digitization programmes – such as the National Library of France and the Institut national de l’audiovisuel.

The Netherlands is another example. The National Library of the Netherlands has been allocated considerable funding and is now teaming up with maybe twelve or 15 other institutions to organize the digitization process.

Germany’s federalist structure gives cultural projects a particular character. Although this generates diversity, it also necessitates considerable coordination and negotiation. What is more, many, many more institutions are affected in Germany than in other countries. After all, the German Digital Library is supposed to serve as a central national portal, bringing together the digital offerings of some 30,000 cultural and academic institutions in a single network. All these differences aside, however, I am sure we can learn from the examples of other countries.

Are there certain areas in Germany where strategies already exist and can be built upon?

Individual libraries have strategies which will be incorporated into an overall strategy just like the DFG guidelines will. Experts in Germany’s federal states have also already addressed the question on a political level. The state of Brandenburg has developed and adopted its own digitization strategy. The German Digital Library, in other words, does not have to start from scratch.

Associations develop joint solution

And who in your opinion should develop the strategy?

I imagine that the German Digital Library with its administrative offices and executive board can take responsibility for organizing and overseeing this process.

It would contact the associations in the individual sectors – such as the German Library Association, the Archive Administration Conference and the German Museums Association – and ask them each to send two representatives. Such a body could discuss and jointly develop a national digitization strategy.

Are you hopeful that your demand will not fall on deaf ears?

It is not only my dream but the wish of many people – and this is a good starting point that justifies optimism. The German Digital Library is now beginning to contact possible representatives of the individual sectors. After all, we are assuming that we will have a fully functional prototype in place for the German Digital Library by the end of 2011.

From that point on, considerable amounts of digital content can be entered. In the first stage, this will be content that is already available in digitized form. To generate new digital content, cooperation with the private sector will be necessary, as the public sector cannot finance digitization on a grand scale all on its own. A properly thought-through and comprehensible strategy is thus also indispensable when it comes to attracting cooperation partners.