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Culture

Europe's Cultural Heritage Goes Online

A new European digital archive gives users access to about 2 million digital objects including film material, photos, paintings, sounds, maps, manuscripts, books, newspapers and other documents.

An employee at Munich's Bavarian State Library pushes a book cart between shelves of books

Europeana is an alternative to conventional libraries like this one in Bavaria

Whether you are looking for Dante's "Divine Comedy," Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring" or a Mozart score, starting Thursday, Nov. 20, you'll find them all free of cost on the European digital library network.

The Europeana digital library uses the latest technologies and will "enable a Czech student to browse the British Library without going to London, or an Irish art lover to get close to the Mona Lisa without queuing at the Louvre," said Viviane Reding, the European Union commissioner responsible for new technologies.

Reding said the digital library would also give greater visibility to all the treasures hidden deep in Europe's libraries, museums and archives. The online collection includes works from 90 partner institutions and all the countries of Europe, according to the Europeana Web site.

Extra funding required

Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring

The public will be able to access thousands of cultural treasures

Europeana organizers hope the project will be fully operational by 2010 and give users around the world direct access to over 6 million digital sounds, pictures, books, archival records and films. Currently available in French, English and German, the project will eventually operate in 21 languages.

The project starts off with 14 staff members and at annual costs estimated at around 2.5 million euros ($3.15 million). But the EU commission has already said it will need more since digitalizing 5 million more books will require 225 million euros.

Hopes are the private sector will invest and help speed up the work. So far, only a small percentage of the books in the EU's national libraries have been digitalized -- in itself a massive undertaking. Then, the works must be put online.

EU's answer to Google

Europeana is not the first attempt to digitize libraries and make them accessible online.

US Internet giant Microsoft has not been successful with its online library, which was established in 2006 but abandoned 18 months later when managers decided the project was too expensive.

Google also offers a program that scans entire books and allows people to read and search published works on the Internet. More than 7 million books are currently available through Google Book Search, which started up in 2004.

But Europeana Program Director Jill Cousins said the EU project isn't intended to compete with other online collections.

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