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30.8.04

Digitizing the National Libraries

In an article (Des milliers d'oeuvres à numériser [Thousands of works to digitize], July 16) for La Libre Belgique, Sophie Lebrun describes the very exciting plans to make digital facsimiles of vast collections in the Belgian Royal Library:

Koninklikje Bibliotheek van BelgiëFive million books, 800,000 prints and drawings, thousands of old photos, 200,000 coins and medals, 200,000 maps and plans, 50,000 sound documents, thousands of scores and letters, 40,000 manuscripts, 3,000 incunabula, 35,000 precious works, millions of newspapers...The Koninklikje Bibliotheek van België, on the Mont des Arts in Brussels, houses inestimable treasures. Now this artistic and scientific patrimony is constantly under threat of destruction. Some pieces, given their state of decay, are no longer accessible to the public. [...]

Notable projects under way concern works of art (in collaboration with universities), in order to create an image database for art history courses; historical atlases; early printed sources; manuscripts of the Library of the Dukes of Burgundy; and old photos as part of a European project. Now the Library will benefit from a serious financial boost: the Digitalization Plan of the Federal Patrimony, initiated by Charles Picqué (Socialist Party) and finalized this year by Fientje Moerman (Vlaamse Liberalen en Democraten), consecutively Ministers of Science Policy. Blessed with a budget of 147.7 million € [$177.3 million] over 10 years beginning in 2005 (43.8 million from the Ministry of Science Policy, 30.5 from the institutions, 73.8 loaned by the European Investment Bank), the plan covers the ten federal scientific establishments. The Archives générales and the Bibliothèque royale are the principal beneficiaries. [...]

Some think the reading rooms will empty out in favor of the virtual library. "We have no fear of that," says Willy Vanderpijpen [Head of Logistics at the Library]. "What matters is the service that we offer, the access to the patrimony, whether it happens within our walls or outside them." He cites the example of the British Library: "In one year, they received 466,600 visitors in their reading rooms and 15 million visits to their Web site!" Proof, as if one were needed, that "the Library does not exist only for scholarly researchers but for the whole world."
Exactly. All I can say as a researcher is Hallelujah! There will always be a need for consultation of the real documents, but to be able to browse rare documents virtually, across the ocean, at any hour of the day or night will surely transform the way we do research. The digital files coming out of the British Library (see their Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, for example) in London, the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, and (perhaps the best of all) my own beloved Library of Congress here in Washington have been thrilling to see. May the trend continue beyond Belgium.

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