Knowledge Organisation


Kim H. Veltman

International Trends in Cultural Repositories

EVA 2004 Moscow, 29 November 2004.

Online version at: with copy at  under New Media.


This paper focuses on five positive trends. First, a survey is given of networks for culture in Europe and elsewhere in the world. The future of E-Culture Net is discussed as are challenges, problems and potentials. Second, there is a subtle shift whereby the local diversity and global standards are no longer opposed as previously feared. Connected with this is a third trend whereby these issues are being linked with research infrastructures and grid technologies in the 7th Framework Programme. Fourth, there is growing awareness that one way to transcend physical and external differences is to understand underlying spiritual connections. Finally, plans for a new European University of Culture (EUC) and first glimpses of an online lecture course on New Models for Culture are outlined.

0. Introduction

In the realm of culture there is ample room for both pessimism and optimism. Pessimists will note a series of distressing trends. A recent war in Mesopotamia by a so-called liberating force has produced more havoc and destruction in two years than the combined efforts of the most ambitious conquerors and terrifying dictators of the past four millennia, including Xerxes, Darius, Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Hitler. This is symptomatic of something more widespread that is occurring also in Afghanistan, Palestine, Nepal, Tibet and elsewhere. In the name of hunting down terrorists, the collective memory of some of the world’s oldest civilizations is being plundered and destroyed. [1]

Pessimists will also note that around the world culture is receiving ever less funding when compared to science; that the funding for study of culture which could improve understanding among peoples is being reduced, while spending on war which decreases understanding among peoples is being increased. The financial problems facing EVA, the Centre PIC and Russian culture have their counterparts even in the richest countries of the world. Pessimists would make such problems the sole topic of a paper on international trends in culture. Optimists will rightly insist that there are also many positive developments and that it is vitally important that we concentrate on these if we are to make serious advances. Accordingly the paper that follows surveys some recent developments which provide reasons for hope. We shall focus on five areas: 1) networks; 2) how the quest for global standards no longer threatens local diversity; 3) research infrastructures and grids; 4) awareness of spiritual connections as a way to tolerance and 5) plans for a new European University for Culture.

1. Networks

Cultural networks are not new. In a sense, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which began in 1945 is the oldest cultural network. The Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), founded in 1972, was one of the first to address the sharing of cultural heritage through the use of common databases. Indeed, the Hon. Gérard Pelletier, the Secretary of State at the time, envisaged that CHIN would create bridges between all memory institutions (museums, libraries and archives). [2] While progress towards this vision has been slow, CHIN became one of the first national initiatives to share distributed databases from cultural institutions online in the early 1990s and has since created a Virtual Museum of Canada [3] that now includes electronic records from 1060 institutions from across the entire 8000 kilometers of Canada.

Libraries have also long been in the forefront of these developments towards distributed networks of information/knowledge which are leading to shared cultural repositories. The vision of creating online versions of national union catalogues for libraries emerged in the 1960s and became a concrete goal in the 1970s. In Canada there is increasing co-operation between CHIN and a virtual Canadian union catalogue (vCuC). [4] In Germany, the challenge of creating such a catalogue initially met with skepticism but has now led to a Gemeinsamer Verbund Katalog (GVK) [5] of over 40 million titles. The United Kingdom has Copac, “a union catalogue, giving FREE access to the merged online catalogues of members of the Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL)” [6] with some 30 million titles. France has a Catalogue Collectif de France (CCFR) [7] with some 15 million titles thus far.

Connected with this trend towards shared collective catalogues is a growing trend to scan in the full texts and images of memory institutions. The French Gallica project is scanning in 70,000 texts which will be freely accessible. The British Early English Books Online (EEBO) Project has scanned in the full texts of 125,000 books between 1475 and 1650. In China, all the classics are available in eight dialects through Unicode (800 million characters). Other countries have analogous projects at the national, regional and local levels.

Such full text and full image scanning projects are achieving much more than simply producing digital versions of what was already readily accessible in analog form. An Italian project, Rinascimento virtuale [8] is using new imaging technologies to reveal unexpected treasures in palimpsest texts, i.e. texts beneath the surface. Elsewhere, similar wonders are being achieved in the case of carbonized papyri. [9] Parallel work in the museum world in Italy is bringing to light layers of images underneath the surface of paintings. [10] Hence digitizing is revealing dimensions of cultural objects which were hitherto invisible and inaccessible with ordinary analog vision.

In Europe, the vision of networks of excellence in the cultural realm began with the Memorandum of Understanding for Multimedia Access to Europe’s Cultural Heritage (MOU, initial lecture, December 1995), and led via the MEDICI Framework to E-Culture Net in the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5). Among the achievements of E-Culture Net was a) a review of major European projects in the past decades, b) a roadmap for progress in the next decade and c) identifying a real for a Distributed European Electronic Resource (DEER) [11] comprising distributed virtual libraries; a virtual reference room and a virtual agora for collaborative research and creativity. Of fundamental importance again is the need to ensure permanent access to holdings and research results.

In the first call of FP6, Luxembourg funded EPOCH (European Research Network on Excellence in Processing Open Cultural Heritage) whose jointly executed research “will define the architecture, components and design guidelines for a common infrastructure for an integrated pipeline for producing applications involving digital versions of tangible cultural heritage.” [12] The larger vision of E-Culture Net was not funded in this first round, partly due to uncertainties about a home-base. In the meantime this problem has been resolved. The emerging European University of Culture (see 5 below) has offered E-Culture Net a secure home base and so the ideas and plans are by no means finished.

Meanwhile, one of the positive contributions of FP6 has been to strengthen efforts of the MINERVA (Ministerial NEtwoRk for Valorising Activities in Digitisation) project, [13] through representatives at a government level. Russia, represented by the Centre PIC, is a full member of this group. As part of this initiative MINERVA has surveyed the use of controlled vocabularies in member states and found a wide range from 0% in Finland to 100% in the Netherlands.

At the meeting in the Hague under the Dutch Presidency in September 2004 there was general consensus that MINERVA was a very good thing. But notwithstanding its enormous political support, MINERVA finds itself faced by the same fate as all other IST projects. After a period of a few years there is no further funding. Similarly, Digicult is ending in December 2004. Networks are difficult to establish. It often takes several years just to establish serious partnerships. There is an urgent need for permanency in such networks if they are to become more than incidental experiments.

At least at a rhetorical level the profound importance of what is at stake has been recognized. In a keynote in Wellington, New Zealand in 2003 Erki Likkanen, the EU Commissioner for Enterprise& Information Society in words reminiscent of Dr. Bernard Smith painted a glowing vision of the dimensions involved:

In any case our starting point is with Europe’s cultural institutions and industries. Cultural institutions (mostly public funded) cover public libraries, museums, digital libraries, archaeological sites, national libraries, science museums, data archives, galleries, public records offices, research libraries, and so on. Whereas the cultural industries (mostly private funded) cover film and video archives, image collections, music, broadcasting, media and design centres, publishing, etc. This represents about 150,000 cultural institutions, sites, etc. in Europe, employing perhaps as many as 2 million people, looking after perhaps as many as 10 billion cultural objects, and welcoming somewhere around 6 billion visits annually. In addition there are in Europe over 1.5 million small cultural enterprises and multimedia content production companies, which employ another 5 million people (sometimes called the “creative industries”). [14]

Given such stakes it is to be hoped thatnew instruments independent of the IST programme will be found for serious progress in this domain.

2. Local Diversity and Global Standards

In the 19th century there was a vision that in order to achieve compatibility between systems one needed to establish global standards which then needed to be imposed on everyone to be effective. This inspired the rise of international organisations such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and many others. Such a top down approach was typical of an age of imperialism where a few small groups in European capitals assumed that the world was theirs to rule and command. The first half of the 20th century revealed the terrible dangers lurking in such potentially totalitarian attitudes and not surprisingly the latter half of the 20th century launched on an extended attack on all things universal. Indeed by the turn of the millennium it appeared to some as if universal, global claims were diametrically opposed to all things regional and local, as if global standards threatened local diversity; as if global were as necessarily impersonal as local was personal; as if global were vice and local was virtue. Such rhetoric continues at meetings of the G8 and of the World Trade Association (WTO).

In terms of culture, the past years have seen an unexpected trend that radically undermines such rhetorical oppositions. For instance, Manfred Thaller (Cologne) has developed a Digital Autonomous Cultural Objects (DACO) protocol that builds on the Open Archive Initiative (OAI) and offers access at much greater levels of granularity, namely individual images, pages or even paragraphs, without requiring a re-organisation of existing databases. This provides one a European solution to the challenge of accessing national, regional and local diversity while maintaining a “unity of diversities” (Ruffolo). [15]

Professor Thaller’s approach is symptomatic of a larger trend. The quest for standardization as envisaged in the 19th century began from a premise that one needed to establish standardized spellings which would then need to be imposed on everyone as if this were a technological imperative. This century top-down method chose one standard name to the exclusion of all others. More recently we have discovered that no such imperative exists and that an alternative approach is possible and preferable.

This new method continues to adopt one name as a working standard and then includes as many variants as one wants as alternatives. This is more work insomuch as one now needs to work in an inductive, bottom up fashion to collect all these variant names as part of the process. But the results are profoundly different. The earlier approach establishes a standard but finds only documents that use precisely that standard. The new method creates a standard which includes as many variants as one can find. The old method was exclusive. The new method is inclusive. In the old method, regional and local variants were unacceptable because they did not conform to the top down system. In the new method regional and local variants are more than welcome. Every new variant strengthens the validity of the system. The old method saw diversity as a threat and therefore threatened linguistic and cultural diversity. The method starts from diversity as a fundamental premise and thus fosters multilingual and cultural diversity.

This method applies to names of persons, places and things. It can equally be applied to titles. The library world has long had a tradition where one version of the title serves as a standard and other versions are recorded as variants. Two small innovations transform this rather tedious old practice into something with revolutionary consequences. A first is simply to add versions in other languages as versions of the accepted standard. A second is to use databases in making everything available online.

This means, for instance, that a Hungarian can type in the title A festészetrõl and arrive at a “standard” name of De pictura (On Painting) without needing to know how to spell the title in Latin or in English. Conversely, this means that an English speaking person can find Hungarian titles without knowing how to spell in that language.

3. Research Infrastructures and Grids

This new method offers a practical solution to the enormous challenges of a European Union with 25 working languages and also offers a new model for multilingual and cultural diversity in the Internet in a world with 6,500 languages which no single person can master totally. As noted earlier, however, the new method also entails more work insomuch as one now needs to work in an inductive, bottom up fashion to collect all these variant names as part of the process. In addition it requires new technologies.

The old method required simply the establishment and use of authority files. This was best done from a position of an international organization and/or a national capital. The new method requires authority files plus lists of variants. This is best done through a combination of national, regional and local offices. The old method was centralized. The new method is necessarily distributed. The old method typically provided national and sometimes international libraries and cultural repositories. The new method points to virtual reference rooms which enable new levels of access to all levels of culture while fully respecting and fostering cultural diversity. This is precisely the kind of tool that Erki Liikanen’s successor, Viviane Reding, needs for the challenges of a new Europe.

It is fascinating to note that the initial discussions concerning the 7th Framework Programme (2007-2011) there were sections on both knowledge, anywhere, anytime and on research infrastructures as a complement to the emerging grids. There was a consensus that such research infrastructures need to be much more than simple physical pipelines. They need to reflect knowledge organisation and knowledge structures. They need to create bridges between the new collaborative and personal knowledge of the Internet and the enduring knowledge of memory institutions (libraries, museums, archives). They need to be multilingual and to reflect different ways of knowing entailed therein as Philippe Quéau noted in his keynote at EVA Moscow in 2003. Gradually the reasons for a DEER (Distributed European Electronic Resource) as recommended by E-Culture Net are looming as a necessity.

4. Spiritual Connection and Physical Difference

In the past, faith and religion have inspired crusades and bloody wars. In the past decade, some thinkers have used religion to explain conflict in the global arena. [16] Even so, a fourth recent development in the cultural field has been a turn to underlying religious and spiritual connections as a means of understanding our common humanity: that the way to tolerate our differences lies in recognizing the deeper dimensions that we share.

The idea is hardly new. The New Testament distinguished between the spirit and the law and urged attention to the spirit as a way of understanding. In the 20th century, Freud discovered that there were recurrent patterns in dream symbolism. Carl Gustav Jung made a profound study of what he termed the collective unconscious. At the Warburg Institute in London a picture archive continues to collect images from dreams of patients around the world and to class them thematically. Scholars of literature such as Ernst Robert Curtius drew attention to the importance of topoi (commonplaces) as a central theme of medieaval and European literature. [17]

Recently there has been renewed interest in these underlying topoi, themes, symbols and images which are shared in and across cultures. A new study of mediaeval heroes has demonstrated that there is a surprisingly small number of heroes throughout the immense corpus of medieaval European literature. [18] Throughout the 1990s, the work of UNESCO on Silk Roads explored such shared themes across many cultures and has led to a new Digital Silk Roads initiative. Indeed in UNESCO and elsewhere there is increasing attention to the role of pilgrimage routes as well as trade routes as a means of understanding how major ideas were initially transmitted. A major conference under the auspices of UNESCO, Das verbindende der Kulturen (Vienna, November 2003) [19] explored other aspects of the underlying elements which we share.

This is leading to unexpected insights. In the 19th century scholars established that the story of the Flood in the Old Testament had parallels in other ancient texts such as the Gilgamesh. It is now known the flood story is found in 677 stories and epics around the world. The number of such basic stories and symbols is relatively small. They include a world tree (cf. the tree of life and the tree of knowledge), a cosmic egg and a cosmic mountain (e.g. Mount Meru).

There is an emerging awareness why these symbols are so fundamental. They typically have physical counterparts in nature. They are typically linked with creation myths and the central epics of a culture. They typically have both a cosmological and an astronomical component and as such they serve as links between microcosm and macrocosm.

This trend has profound implications. It confirms that some of the central Christian symbols of the European traditions have parallels and to a certain extent their origins in the Middle and Far East. This renders naïve attempts to explain clashes of civilizations in terms of different religions: e.g. Islam vs. Judaism or Christianity. All three share underlying symbols or simple products. This also renders naïve attempts to define Europe in terms of symbols which supposedly make it unique. Europe is not just a combination of Italian pizzas, German sausages and French onion soup. Rather, its essence, as Aristotle would say, entails a particular quest for knowledge, an elusive quest for truth, and a fundamental commitment to open sharing in a fair environment.

The uniqueness of cultures is ultimately also in terms of what they do with their symbols: how much they are kept secret or how openly they are shared; to what extent they remain in the hands of a small group of shamans/priests or are shared with citizens at large; how these symbols are translated into different media and across media; how these symbols are used to set a group apart from others and encourage intolerance or how they are used to include others and foster tolerance and sharing. This implies that the study of culture cannot simply be an exercise in nationalism. We need new models for culture [20] that are global in their scope while highlighting their ability to foster richness and diversity of the local and regional, or not. Fortunately, there is a fifth trend which may help make this possible.

5. European University of Culture

Russia already has a number of universities of culture. Europe is slowly trying to catch up. An initial plan was to create a new university of culture on the premises of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Given the Realpolitik of the day this is not feasible at the moment. So now the vision is to have four campuses. Berlin will focus on art and aesthetics. Bologna will study humanities (scienze umane). Madrid will deal with languages and literature. Paris will centre on philosophy and Internet. The Paris base will be at the Université de Paris 8, in Saint Denis, the place from which Abbot Suger helped inspire the origins of the Gothic movement in the 1140s. Paris will become the new base of e-Culture Net. And because Paris is responsible for Internet and Culture it is likely to become an integrating node for the distributed efforts of the four campuses.

6. Conclusions

While acknowledging various reasons for pessimism this paper has focused on five trends which provide reasons for optimism in the cultural domain. These trends point to new networks and a new sharing of resources through distributed repositories. They confirm a need to make these more accessible via virtual reference rooms and more effective through a virtual agora for collaborative research and creativity: i.e. the need for a Distributed European Electronic Resource (DEER). This will continue to be a vision of E-Culture Net, a vision in which the contributions of Russia can and should play a significant role.

Notes [1] Cf. the author’s: “Debate e investigacion: Deasfios de la aplicacion de las TIC al patrimonio cultural,” Boletin PH 46, Instituto Andaluz del Patrimonio Historico, Seville, December 2003, pp.26-41. English version available at under New Media under Knowledge Organization as: “Challenges for Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Applications in Cultural Heritage in the Next Decade(s).”
[2] Personal communication ( 14.10.2004  in Calgary) with Peter Homulos, founding director of CHIN and now special advisor to the minister.
[3] VMC. See:
[4] vCuc. See:
[5] GVK, See:
[6] Copac. See: Copac is a union catalogue, giving FREE access to the merged online catalogues of members of the Consortium of University Research Libraries (CURL).
[7] CCF. See:
[8] Rinascimento virtuale. See:
[9] Recording, Processing and Archiving Carbonized Papyri.    See:
Cf. SGML: Using the World-Wide Web to Deliver Complex Electronic Documents.
See: [10] Cf. Editech. See:
[11] E-Culture Net See:
[12] EPOCH. See:
[13] MINERVA. See:
[14] “Activities and Research for Cultural Heritage in the European Union,” Keynote talk for the National Digital Forum 2003, Wellington, New Zealand, 29-30 Sept. 2003. See:
[15] Giorgio Ruffolo, The Unity of Diversities - Cultural Co-operation in the European Union. Edited by the Parliamentary Group of the PSE, European Parliament, Firenze: Angelo Pontecorboli Editore, 2001.
[16] E.g. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, v.72, n.3, pp. 22-28. This subsequently appeared as a book: Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.  
[17] Ernst Robert Curtius, Europäische Literatur und lateinisches Mittelalter, Francke Verlag: Tübingen, 1948.  11th edition 1993.
[18] William P. Gerritsen; Anthony G. van Melle, A Dictionary of Medieval Heroes, Trowbridge: Boydell Press, 1998.
[19] Das verbindende der Kulturen. See:
[20] For a preview of how this might evolve at the new European University of Culture see under New Models. Cf. also the author’s Augmented Knowledge and Culture, Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005 (in press).  

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