Europeana is one of those inestimably worthy, pan-European projects that the European Union funds handsomely, that some people get terribly idealistic about, and you wonder just how many people actually use. Launched in 2008, it is a multi-lingual portal to the digital resources of some 1,500 European museums, libraries, archives and audio-visual collections, among them the British Library, the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum. There are some 14.6 million items described and accessible on its site, which certainly makes for an exceptional collection. However, it is a portal, which means that all of this stuff is available elsewhere (i.e. on the websites of the contributing institutions), and Europeana depends on its success for the usefulness of having all this content in the one place and the degree to which researchers will identify with a Europe-wide culture and want to find content across its borders and languages.
Whether you think in a European kind of way, Europeana is undoubtedly hugely useful in bringing together such a cornucopia of content. It is simply and sensibly presented and records are meticulously described. Each record gives you the essential information on the chosen object (including in most case a thumbnail image, some of surprisingly poor quality), then provides you with a link to the object on the contributing institution’s website. The research will find paintings, drawings, maps, photos, pictures of museum objects, books, newspapers, letters, diaries, archival papers, cylinders, tapes, discs, radio broadcasts, films, newsreels and television broadcasts. Most are available for free (you do come across some paid access entries, mostly for Scotalnd’s SCRAN site). It is certainly something to explore.
Europeana search results page for ‘bioscope’
So, what will we find for the study of silent films? Our usual test search term of “kinetoscope” doesn’t yield too much, but type in “silent film” and you get 91 records (note that this will currently only bring up the English language records). Most of these are either photographs (particularly of cinemas, deriving for the UK resource Culture Grid) or a range of early films (mostly actualities) that derive from filmarchives online. Searchin under “cinematograph” brings up 37 records: among them photographs of cameras, postcards, posters and flyers, while “charlie chaplin” brings up 128 records: 3 texts, 100 images, 16 videos (mostly French TV programmes from INA) and 9 sound recordings (the latter all in French).
Other search terms worth pursuing include “bioscope” (26 results), “kinema” (33), “stumfilm” (62), “stummfilm” (110), “gaumont” (261) and “kino” (4,853). It is certainly worth knowing the common terms for film subjects in other languages (a tip is to check the keywords under item you’ve stumbled upon to find more of the same), though Europeana is working on solutions to provide true multilingual access through association of search terms (so you might type in “silent film” and get results from “stummfilm” as well). Among the surprises I have found are French First World War film posters from the Imperial War Museum (via the VADS visual resource site), a number of photographs of German silent films from Deutsche Fotothek, photographs of early cine cameras from the Norwegian DigitaltMuseum, and a terrific set of photographs of cinemas past in Leeds from Leodis.net.
Worth noting is that Europeana is to be the outlet for a three-year project, the European Film Gateway, which in 2011 will deliver its own portal to 700,000 digital objects including films, photos, posters, drawings and text documents from 21 archives across 15 countries. More on that initiative when the time comes.
Searching on Europeana is a somewhat haphazard experience. Because it is a compilation of the greatest hits of other institutions and resources, one does not go there to conduct comprehensive research but instead to wander round almost at random and see what catches the eye. The real fascination then comes in seeing where the digital object comes from and pursuing that source for more information. This is of course what a portal is supposed to do, and so Europeana performs its basic task very well. More and more content is being poured into it, and it certainly provides a far more useful function than the much-lauded and so far very disappointing World Digital Library. All of our libraries are trying earnestly to turn themselves into digital libraries, an inevitable consequence of which is that more and more content gets shared through linkages and common search platforms, raising the profile of major initatives like Europeana while relegating the individual library to a subsidiary role. It’s going to be hard for the individual institution to retain its identity in our bright new digital future. For the researcher, meanwhile, the assumption is that more access is better, and the easier the better. That’s not necessarily the case (research isn’t research if it’s easy), but there’s certainly no excuse now for any of us not to be discovering more.
The Bioscope will be doing its bit for individual institutions over pan-national behemoths by writing about some of the contributors to Europeana over the next few weeks.