International Workshop: Digitizing German-Language Cultural Heritage from Eastern Europe

Conference organizer: Institute for East and Southeast European Studies

April 27-28, 2015, Regensburg

For several years the Institute for East and Southeast European Studies (IOS) is conducting digitization projects on German-language cultural materials from Eastern Europe. Based on these experiences the IOS invited with funding from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media librarians and archivists from Germany as well as from Estonia, Israel, Austria, Poland and Romania to an international workshop with the following objectives: 1) discussion on the progress of the digitization of the cultural heritage of German-language minorities with presentations of current projects and programs; 2) assessment of the potentials and modalities for international collaboration; 3) possibilities of implementing minority heritage into digital national libraries; 4) potentials of new technological developments; 5) delineation of new concepts for a digitization strategy.

Keynote speaker HANS-JAKOB TEBARTH (Martin Opitz Library, Herne/Germany) outlined the central role of his library whose collection area covers the entire region of Eastern and Southeastern Europe in the process of digitizing the cultural heritage of German-language minorities. Tebarth firstly presented the vast variety of the library’s stocks which are containing beside monographs and periodicals also church registers, dossiers, slides, postcards and numerous rare books. Digitized stocks are implemented into the electronic reading room Digi96 which is under continous development and will play an important role for the consolidation of the dispersed cultural materials from Eastern Europe.

RACHEL HEUBERGER (Compact Memory / University Library Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt a. M.) presented the enhancements of the renowned digital library Compact Memory which is currently holding 172 digitized Jewish German-language periodicals from the 19th and 20th century, mainly printed in Germany. All periodicals are freely accessible without any restrictions and fulltext-searchable. The former pioneering project for newspaper digitization in Germany was integrated in 2014 into the Judaica Collection of the University Library in Frankfurt a.M. where the functionality was further expanded. Special mention is to be made about the linking of the metadata with the Gemeinsame Normdatei (GND, eng. Integrated Authority File) and the Wikipedia, enabling the user to access information on the displayed media without delay. Compact Memory is planning on adding more periodicals from Eastern Europe, making it without dispute the central collection for German-language Jewish periodicals from the region.

CHEZKIE KASNETT (National Library of Israel, Jerusalem) introduced the participants into the digitization program of the portal Historical Jewish Press which is operated by the National Library and the Tel Aviv University, providing informative insights in the project management and the decision processes for the technical development. Kasnett advocated for not exaggerating the prioritization of the improvement of the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to the disadvantage of other technological features: the manual correction of the recognition results for an almost perfect score of 99 % would require too many personal resources which could be better used in other working processes. A recognition rate reduced to about 85 % to 95 % would be sufficient for the users if a fuzzy search is provided which has enough tolerance for finding the respective words in spite of a mistaken character. Furthermore also the automated semantic markup of newspaper articles would be less important for the users than was previously expected by librarians and is therefore no longer practiced by the National Library. For determining the course of the development of certain features and for getting qualified feedback on its digital services, the library is regularly organizing testing days with its users. Such events are also important for recruiting crowdsourcing potentials, e.g. for the indexing of the content of the periodicals. Regarding the project funding the concept of seeking a foundation and negotiating the splitting of the costs between the library and the founder has been proven as reliable and efficient.

Following these keynote speeches the next panel was dedicated to the digitization practice of various institutions. AIJA SAKOVA-MERIVEE (Academic Library of Tallinn University) gave a comprehensive overview on Baltic-German stocks and digital libraries and archives in Estonia. Due to the leading position of the Germans until the 19th century there are today vast stocks of cultural materials preserved in the country whose digitization represents an important objective of cultural policies. PATRICJA POPOWNIAK (Silesian Library, Katowice) presented numerous projects of the Silesian Library which holds in its stocks more than 22 % German-language materials. Difficulties in the digitization are emerging because of the Gothic type of many German publications, necessitating a special software for Optical Character Recognition (OCR). For avoiding redundant digitizations the Silesian and other Polish libraries are notifying a project to the national Federation of Digital Libraries. In order to support crowdsourcing the library is regularly organizing public workshops for introducing its users to the digitization workflow and to the possibility of a volunteer service – an offer which is in high demand.

ANDRÁS BÁNDI (Central Archive of the Evangelical Church (A.C.) in Romania, Sibiu) provided an insight into the digitization activities of the Central Archive of the Evangelical Church A.C. in Romania. Most user requests result from genealogical interests and are almost completely directed towards manuscripts from the early modern period like e.g. church registers. The archive is offering for its copyright-free stocks digitization-on-demand but is allowing its user also to digitize individually on the scanners. The resulting digitized materials are usually implemented into the digital archive. Some disappointment was articulated about the lack of diligence by some users regarding the designation of the digitized stocks, making their clear assignment and later reuse sometimes impossible. The archive is a partner of Monasterium and Europeana and can hence reach with its materials a very broad user community.

In the next panel „Challenges of digitization“ CAROLINE FÖRSTER (Saxon State and University Library Dresden) discussed newspaper digitization in international comparison: while in the USA, Australia, Great Britain, the Netherlands and in Austria national programs on newspapers were initiated, the focus in Germany was on medieval and early modern materials. For providing the general public with historical newspapers – more than 16.000 titles appeared in Germany – which are of indispensable value as “second hands of history” (Arthur Schopenhauer) -, a project for the digitization of numerous newspapers was started whose experiences will set the framework for a ,master plan’ which will essentially contribute to the digitization process and will provide the basis for the future newspaper digitization program of the German Research Foundation (DFG). Part of that project is also an update to the DFG-viewer for adjusting it to periodicals and a new version of the Zeitschriftendatenbank which will show information on ongoing digitization projects and lacking volumes and issues.

JAN SCHRASTETTER (Digital Forum Central and Eastern Europe (DiFMOE), Munich) illustrated the concept of the DiFMOE – which digitized in the past years some of the most important periodicals of German minorities from Eastern Europe – for the buildup of public-oriented digital libraries on the topic of the European Capitals of Culture and their historical German-language minorities. After the successful projects Cassovia and Riga Digitalis the DiFMOE is presently working on the Pilsna Digitalis. By the implementation of an appealing presentation modality with numerous visual materials and comfortable usability the cultural relevance of this heritage is communicated also to a broader public who is less familiar with digital libraries.

GÜNTER MÜHLBERGER (University Library Innsbruck) introduced the workshop’s participants to a milestone of digitization technology: with the OCR program Transkribus it is possible for the first time to automatically recognize handwritten texts. The program is still in development and in need of the input of interested users: after registration the user can upload digitized materials into the program which serves as a training for improving the recognition accuracy. Transkribus needs about 100 pages in order to learn the individual traits of a handwriting and read it properly. The user can correct the recognized text and thus emend the further recognition of additional texts. It is easy to foresee that Transkribus will become in the near future a standard tool for the deeper indexing of medieval and early modern handwritten documents.

In the panel “Digitization strategies“ CHRISTA MÜLLER (Austrian Newspapers Online (ANNO)/ Austrian National Library (ÖNB), Vienna) described the digitization programs of the ÖNB. Since 1997 the retro-digitization of more than 600.000 historical stocks is undergoing, since 2011 in public-private-partnership with Google Inc. All digitized materials are freely accessible in Google Books as well as in the catalogue of the ÖNB. Another central undertaking is the digitization of the historical newspaper stocks by the portal ANNO, founded in 2003. Currently there are 14 million full-text searchable pages from 636 newspapers from the time period from 1568 to 1944 available. Even this huge number of periodicals is however only a part of the vast newspaper collection of the ÖNB. Its digitization would not be possible without collaboration with other domestic and foreign institutions and the acquisition of private funds which is accomplished by a fundraising department.

The digitization initiatives on national level in Germany were discussed by COSMINA BERTA and UWE MÜLLER (German Digital Library (DDB), Frankfurt a. M.) who gave a presentation of the DDB. Differently than many other national digital libraries the DDB is a metacatalogue and does not digitize itself. 2014 the DDB was publicly activated with its full version, providing as of 2015 contextual information on about 12 million digitized stocks and collaborating with more than 2.100 institutions. For the public as well as for researchers the DDB is offering an indispensable service, enabling without delay the search for various types of historical materials in German digital libraries. The further development is ongoing and hence it is not yet foreseeable if there will be established a separate collection on the “Culture and History of German-language population groups in Eastern Europe”.

TILLMANN TEGELER (IOS) stated in his conclusion of the preceding talks and discussions that the digitization process is characterized not only by an extraordinary variety of cultural materials but also of digitization strategies. However for convincing potential promoters of allocating substantial funding, a strategy is needed which properly balances expenditures and results. ALBERT WEBER (IOS) presented for this purpose a concept which seems adequate for significantly contributing to the process: presently most projects are conducted, according to Weber, within separate institutions which are only selectively committing to collaborations. The consequence is a lack of coordination on national and international level and hence an insufficient utilization of organizational, technical and financial synergetic effects. A solution would be the formation of an international working group with the following objectives: devising of a strategy paper which contains the basic guidelines for the digitization process; conceiving of a database of German-language stocks in Eastern Europe; conceptualization of a catalogue of digitized materials for informing about already accessible materials and for avoiding costly redundant digitizations; establishing of a weblog as an information infrastructure; disclosure of new funding prospects by articulating in a kind of declaration the entitlement of ethnical minorities to have their cultural heritage digitized by their home state; delineation of crowdsourcing potentials. Overall Weber pled in his talk for the necessity to build coordinating structures which enable an efficient communication as well as a sensitization of policymakers in science and politics for the desideratum of digitizing minority heritage.

The presented concept was criticized by the representatives of the major libraries who are assessing the actual progress of the digitization process as well as the already existing infrastructre as sufficient and appropriate. This view was objected by the smaller libraries which simply lack the funds for larger digitization projects despite partially holding vast stocks of printed materials. Moreover the difficulty was articulated of successfully competing with the bigger institutions who do not only have easier access to public funding but also to financially well situated private sponsors. A problem was furthermore identified in the fact that digitized German-language materials are often hard to find in the total stocks of bigger digital libraries because these are not explicitly catalogued as such and consequently have only a very reduced visibility. Hence the buildup of separate collections is necessary – but currently not concretely planned by the respective libraries. The participants also discussed the fact that in some Eastern European regions there are existing orphaned stocks of historical materials which have only insufficient or no attendance at all by librarians or archivists and are therefore to be classified as endangered; an appropriate solution for that problem is yet to be found.

The following results of the workshop are to be noted: librarians and archivists from Eastern Europe are generally open for the digitization of the German-language cultural heritage of their collection area. For a substantial and sustainable collaboration however initiatives from Germany or Austria are necessary as well as a division of labour: foreign librarians often lack the needed linguistical and cultural competences or the technical means (notably Gothic type OCR) for larger digitization projects. It is still not clear how this heritage will be integrated into the digital national libraries – among these being also the German Digital Library -, which are still under intensive development and requiring most of the resources for very basic projects.

For the further devising of the digitization process the following short and middle term measures were regarded as most promising by the participants:

1) more efficient coordination through an increased centralization of the process, e.g. by the formation of a working group which is to be especially active in a consultatory, think-tank-like role

2) collection of reliable information by a series of systematic, aligned and elaborated online surveys for the general public as well as for specialized institutions. An additional knowledge basis can be provided by the buildup of a catalogue of digitized materials and by a weblog

3) intensified collaboration of digital libraries, digitization centers and stock holding institutions

4) expansion of the currently available funding, e.g. by national or European Union funding programs

5) exploitation of new technical potentials (manuscript OCR, apps, georeferencing).


Workshop agenda:

Section 1: Digital and analogue stocks in Central and Eastern European libraries

Hans-Jakob Tebarth (Martin Opitz Library, Herne): The cultural heritage of German minorities from Eastern Europe in German institutions (funded by § 96 BVFG): the Martin Opitz Library

Rachel Heuberger: (Compact Memory / University Library Johann Christian Senckenberg, Frankfurt a.M.): Prag and elsewhere – East European Jewish culture as integral part of the Digital Judaica Collections

Chezkie Kasnett (Historical Jewish Press, National Library of Israel, Jerusalem): Digitization of the Polish Jewish Press – Strategy, Challenge and Partnership

Aija Sakova-Merivee: (Tallinna Ülikooli Akadeemiline Raamatukogu / Academic Library of Tallinn University): The library of Tallinn Baltic German Society Estländische Literärische Gesellschaft (1842-1940) at the Academic Library of Tallinn University

Patricja Popowniak (Biblioteka Śląska / Silesian Library, Katowice): Silesian Digital Library – its character and collections

András Bándi (Friedrich-Teutsch-Haus / Archive of the Evangelical Church (A.C.) in Romania, Sibiu): Chances and Setbacks of Digitization in the Archives of the Evangelical Church (A.C.) in Romania

 Section 2: Challenges of digitization

Caroline Förster (Saxon State and University Library Dresden): Digitizing Historical Newspapers in Germany

Jan Schrastetter (Digital Forum Central and Eastern Europe, Munich): The Digital Forum Central and Eastern Europe and the Pilsna Digitalis

Günter Mühlberger (University of Innsbruck Library, Dept. for Digitisation and Digital Preservation): Transkribus. An Open Platform for the Recognition of Printed and Handwritten Text.

Section 3: Digitization strategies

Christa Müller (AustriaN Newspapers Online, National Library of Austria, Vienna): ANNO – the Digital Newspaper Reading Room as part of the Digital Strategy of the Austrian National Library

Cosmina Berta / Uwe Müller (German Digital Library, Berlin): “Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek” – Central access to German digital cultural and scientific heritage

Section 4: Coordination

Tillmann Tegeler / Albert Weber (IOS Regensburg): Concept for an international working group

Cite this blog post
Albert Weber (2015, August 20). International Workshop: Digitizing German-Language Cultural Heritage from Eastern Europe. Minorities Records. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from

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