Coordinating the digitization of German-language cultural heritage from Eastern Europe – a concept proposal for an International Working Group

[Paper by Albert Weber (Institute for East and Southeast European Studies) at the International Workshop Digitizing German-language cultural heritage from Eastern Europe on April 28, 2015:]

I will present you in the following our proposal for the buildup of organizational structures which could serve the process of digitizing the German-language heritage in Eastern Europe.

The current situation presents itself as a multitude of single projects which in the best cases are conducted in quite selective cooperations, including often no more than two or three partners. Consequently many possible synergy effects are not being exploited, resulting in unused potentials. A strategic organization of the digitization process can surely achieve a more efficient investment of financial means, a higher technical standard, a better modality of presentation and a faster accomplishment of a largely completion of the digitization of this heritage.

For that purpose we propose the founding of an International Working Group (IWG) which is to be formed in the near future. This group of institutions – of course mainly, but not only libraries – is to be understood as a primary phase of constructing the framework of a digitization strategy. In the secondary phase a later founded Central Office operates even more professionalized on the basis of this framework and can bring the digitization process close to its completion which has to take place in a tertiary phase, when there is – so to speak – enough organizational momentum for finishing the digitization process of the heritage without further major intervention.

To enter into some of the details: The first step of the activity of the IWG would be to develop a documentation of the entire concept by conceiving a Joint Policy Paper; this serves as a preliminary digitization strategy. It contains the common specifications which can be found also in other strategy papers like for example indications on the priority types of materials or which quantity of which materials should be digitized, which kind of central presentation should be preferred etc. etc., but also a draft of how the entire process of digitizing this heritage should take place. Moreover an important part of the Paper is a detailed concept for the later to be founded Central Office.

The second step would be to determine a comprehensive image of the current situation of the major and the most fragile German-language stocks in Eastern Europe. For this purpose a topography of the depositories of these stocks is needed, which answers the question: where are the materials which are to be digitized? The most efficient way to do this is to collect the data through surveys which are to be sent to libraries in Eastern Europe (and of course there have to be done some preparations for ensuring to receive answers on these surveys).

To make the information on the locations of the stocks better visible it is maybe best to use a geographical representation by simply showing a map of Eastern Europe with markings of the stocks in the respective libraries which hyperlink to further details.

Starting from this topography the desideratum appears to devise a catalogue of digitzed materials as a suppliment, serving on the one hand the benefit of informing librarians, researchers and the general public about what is already accessible, and on the other avoiding redundant digitizations, which can consume a lot of financial resources. The IWG has to develop a mature concept for this catalogue by stating its technical guidelines as well as the selection criteria – which materials should actually be registered into the catalogue? – and which procedure would be the most efficient to report the materials – maybe one of the most important aspects of the catalogue concept, that must be so far perfected that the later Central Office can realize it without further major inputs.

Another important task is the providing of professionally presented information on the process of digitization for supporting the entire process, but especially international networking. For this purpose a major weblog should be founded which informs on major projects, conferences, workshops etc., but serves also by indicating reference persons for various questions on digitization. Finally a weblog is also an efficient tool for informing the public on the issue of minority heritage, being a voice in favor of this costly undertaking.

Speaking of “public” and “costly”, an obvious task of this IWG should be to reach out to political actors in order to generate political support for the entire undertaking of digitizing minority heritage in general and, in our case, for German-language materials. An appropriate procedure would be to convince political organizations of the German-speaking minorities in Eastern Europe that they should integrate the aim of digitizing the heritage in their political program. A second measure would be to make contact with German newspapers in the region and to persuade the editorial staff to report on a regular basis on digitized materials. Eventually there could also be organized workshops for journalists who are briefed on how to write about ,digital culture’.

It is evident that this digitizaton process will encounter serious problems and delays if there aren’t found new funding prospects. A good solution seems to be to devise and forward proposals for new funding programs on national and European level, for which any European institution should be able to apply. Beside that the IWG must try to achieve a higher sensitization of the librarian and research community for the need of digitizing and properly presenting minority heritage – which is, as already has been stated, to be seen as a “digital minority right”.

And finally in this context of searching for funding it should also be a task of the IWG to succesfully apply for the financing of the later Central Office.

We noted some additional tasks which are also important but maybe not that substantial than the previous ones like investigating the legal situation of copyright issues – which could be quite different in some former communist countries where collective property was constitutional – in order to digitize copyright protected materials and thus avoid to a certain degree the notorious “black hole of the 20th century”. Another task like organizing conferences etc. is quite obvious. An interesting point is to seek out for possibilites of crowd sourcing which could save a lot of money if certain groups of interested persons are properly motivated to contribute with their effort to specific projects.

After the IWG has set the framework, collected some experiences, has undertaken a broad networking and assured the financial basis, the Central Office is to be founded which takes over the main tasks of the Group and attends these on a more professionalized level. For this purpose the Central Office must consist of a full-time staff with proper preparation and qualification.  Its first task would be to further develop the Joint Policy Paper to an elaborated, official Digitization Strategy which is to be regularly updated, following current technological trends, developments or new research policies.

The second task is to identify the priority stocks for the further digitization in order to reach a “critical mass” of cultural materials which can largely represent the heritage of the various minorities. Thirdly the Central Office has to provide consultation services and to support the coordination of projects in a substantial way. We noted some other tasks, one of them regarding the copyright issue, the other the urgent need to perform projects on “advanced” digitization like Mobile Apps or 3D-modeling. Ultimately it would be important to find some possible connections with German-language communities in other places around the globe.

To summarize these proposals: a digitization strategy for such a vastly dispersed and fragmented cultural heritage needs to be quite sophisticated and must therefore be based on institutionalized structures which are highly professionalized particularly for this purpose. An efficient implementation is surely not possible without an active contribution and intercommunication of various international partners. A key aspect which assures the success of this undertaking is to raise awareness on multiple levels in society and in the scientific community that it is imperative not to neglect the heritage of ethnical minorities and to force upon them the cultural dominance of the majority – please think about Jean-Noel Jeanneney’s criticism against the Anglo-American dominance in the virtual world –, but to integrate their heritage in the regular national digitzation activities.

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