Europeana as a research tool?

Submitted by Isto Huvila on Fri, 10/25/2013 - 13:32

I had an opportunity to participate in a workshop organised by the Europeana Cloud project on how Europeana could better support social science research. The workshop was attended besides myself and people from the project by a group of (mainly) Scandinavian social science researchers. Without having specific knowledge of the latest move on the Europeana front, you wouldn't probably consider this digital library (or really an aggregator) as a research tool, but rather as a cultural project, political initiative for promoting European culture(s) or a European revanche to meet the challenge of Google.

All of this doesn't mean that Europeana could not indeed be a functional resource for doing research as well. Even at the present it can be a useful point of reference for (somewhat) serendipitous checking whether it would be possible to find something similar to what I have already in the collections of some European institutions (To this end, it might not be a bad idea to visual search app that could be used to find similar items than the one I'm at the moment pointing at with my smartphone). Or to find potential institutions to ask about particular types of materials. Similarly, it can be a useful place for checking if there would be something else about a particular topic that I haven't been thinking about. In the context of education, it is of course a useful utility for student work and for illustration.

One of the conclusions of the workshop was that it would not necessarily take very complex tools or huge amounts of content to support researchers. Flexible search tools and basic tools for exporting data can be rather good for many purposes even if the creative and useful ideas of support and tools presented at the workshop will be undoubtedly very helpful for the research community. Content-wise, one of the main points was that it is less of a problem if there is little material than if it is difficult to say something of the context of the material: is there more of the same kind of material in some collections, what kind of a selection this is (made by whom, how and why), is there more information available, adn what is this anyway according to the institution where the materials are deposited. One possible thing to do could also be to promote new materials and the questions the cultural institutions themselves may have on their materials as something researchers might take a look at. 

One of the most important things is undoubtedly the question of profiling Europeana in a way that it becomes a natural starting point and/or useful repository for particular types of questions like Google is for most of the people for common everyday information seeking and certain specialist databases are for other kinds of, for instance, scholarly or scientific needs. In a way it could be quite possible to see Europeana as a potential hub for particular types of Europe related things (or things found in Europe), but to see it as a yet-another-portal that everybody should specifically come and use is probably not the most realistic option to consider. Its strength could be in bringing together resources that otherwise cannot be found on the web and making them visible in a similar way Wikipedia has managed to make ordinary information about many (read: millions of) different things available for a casual surfer.