A bridge across Europe: linking collections at international level

Overview of the workshop

The European Library is the gateway to the collections and data of Europe’s national and research libraries, with some 200 million bibliographic records, hundreds of collection descriptions and 25 million digitised objects from all 47 states of the Council of Europe. We operate on the principle of open data for re-use.

In this workshop we defined collections within a European context and demonstrated how The European Library has transformed the process of gathering and creating collection descriptions from across the continent. The workshop was aimed at all libraries wanting to know more about how to showcase and connect their collections at international level. It was also relevant  to researchers and other communities wanting to uncover and make use of library materials from collections located across Europe.


The growth of digital libraries and the development of large-scale data aggregation have increased the amount of material that can be discovered online by users. The European Library is at the forefront of  aggregation work, gathering bibliographic records, collection descriptions and metadata to digitised content and making this huge dataset available via multiple channels to users.  Given that many library resources are not catalogued at item level and that the vast majority are not digitised, The European Library has been working with its partner libraries on collection-level descriptions as a means to promote the discoverability of their resources.

Valentine Charles, Data Specialist at The European Library, explained how collection-level descriptions can be a way of retaining context information and improving the search and discovery of individual  items.  In a situation where only around 10-12% of content is digitised (according to the ENUMERATE survey), collection-level descriptions are even more vital for non-digitised resources. They provide context for the understanding resources, they enable the integration of libraries’ data within a wider network of resources; they allow libraries to show their uniqueness to researchers and other user groups; and they promote the usage of digitised material in different ways. Collection-level metadata can potentially be harnessed by libraries to support collections management by capturing acquisitions information, collections growth and rights information. Managing resources at collection level can also help in forming  a content strategy, for example, by analysing  subject coverage or material type.

The development of a collection description strategy involves several steps. Roberta Cacciaglia, Collections Officer at The European Library, is responsible for enhancing collections descriptions using existing metadata standards.  Since  September 2014 most of the collections on The European Library portal have an enriched metadata  description. These collections descriptions carry information about their coverage, special features and availability. They also contextualise individual resources. They provide important context about the purpose and features of a collection and why the items in it may be of value to users. The presentation also showed the workflow to gather information from multiple libraries, integrate it into the larger dataset, make it available for review and publish it online.

The European Library will integrate the work done on collection description enrichment into its Linked Open Data. Nuno Freire, Chief Data Officer at The European Library, demonstrated how to exploit collections descriptions as Linked Open Data. To ensure optimal discoverability, collection descriptions have already been implemented as structured data and controlled vocabularies have been used for information related to subjects, languages, time and spatial coverage. This work will facilitate the conversion of collections descriptions into Linked Open Data and will also exploit linking to ontologies within  research infrastructures.. Linked data will support new ways of querying and browsing based on specific entities and concepts which will allow scholars to gather relevant information for meeting their research needs.

Collections have the potential for engaging with a range of user communities. We highlighted the CENDARI project, which is creating a pan-European virtual research environment in Medieval Studies and the First World War, uncovering previously hidden collections across Europe. We were joined by Dr. Jakub Benes of the University of Birmingham, who demonstrated how researchers can benefit from making use of collections descriptions. The digital turn offers historians a new way of seeing. Big data analysis currently has most of the attention, but the revolution is happening at the earlier stages of research. Scholars can develop transnational connections to historical arguments through searches among multiple databases. Dr Benes stressed how history in the digital era needs collections descriptions to aid researchers to navigate through such a complex ‘information landscape’. in order that the sheer volume of information does not become overwhelming.

The European Library maximises the potential of collections descriptions to provide  “high-level” navigation of large, distributed and heterogeneous resources and to enable scholars to find their way through this information landscape. The European Library has identified and selected resources from Europe’s national and research libraries for the CENDARI project, based on its rich collection descriptions.

Final discussion

We ended the workshop with an interactive debate examining how UK libraries and archives can work with collections at European level. This included discussion of how they might collaborate with European partners to develop collection descriptions in innovative ways, including tools and services for collections management. Since  the collection has not traditionally been at the forefront of resource discovery,  libraries were very interested in working with The European Library on creating a directory of collections descriptions, as a guide to both digitised and non-digitised collections. As library management systems do not place a high priority on building a collections descriptions tool , libraries would definitely use the tool The European Library is developing for the harvesting of collections descriptions. Archives have long been using collections descriptions (finding aids) as resource discovery tools  and were interested in integrating such information through an adequate mapping process. Finally, establishing The European Library’s set of collections descriptions as linked open data would be very popular with both libraries and archives.

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