The many and varied institutions of Europe can present a confusing and seemingly unending array of unions, councils, commissions, committees, and parliaments. The 25-state European Union may be the best-known governmental entity, but the oldest and largest multinational political institution in Europe is the Council of Europe, which was founded in 1949. This 46-country body includes every European nation (with one exception: Belarus is an applicant country), from Portugal in the west to Russia in the east.
Since 1989 the council had focused most of its work on human rights, assisting reforms in Eastern European countries and promoting awareness of a European identity across different cultures. It is within this cultural remit that the Conference of European National Librarians (CENL; http://www.cenl.org) operates. Members of CENL are the national librarians of the member states of the Council of Europe. The conference currently comprises 45 members from 43 countries. Founded under Dutch law, CENL's aim is to increase and reinforce the role of national libraries in Europe, in particular in respect to their responsibilities for maintaining the national cultural heritage and ensuring the accessibility of knowledge in that field.
Direct Access to Europe's National Libraries
CENL has initiated several cooperative national library projects, including The European Library (http://www.the europeanlibrary.org). The European Library started out in February 2001 as the TEL Project, which aimed to create the foundations for a portal that would provide direct access to the collections of Europe's national libraries through seamless and simultaneous searching of all of their online catalogs. The project was successfully finished on Jan. 31, 2004. During the project, it became clear that the then-existing Web site for European national libraries, Gabriel (GAteway and BRIdge to Europe's National Libraries), would be integrated into the new site.
Version 1.1 of The European Library was launched at the end of November 2005. Now, the service offers free searching of 113 digital and nondigital collections from 12 national libraries (Austria, Croatia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Serbia, Slovenia, Switzerland, and the U.K.) and delivers digital objects where available. The operational service, version 1.0, was launched on March 17, 2005. More libraries will be added in stages, with a target of an additional 19 to be added by the end of 2007 and the remaining 13 to be incorporated thereafter.
Funding for the project comes partially from the European Commission's TEL-ME-MOR (The European Library: Modular Extensions for Mediating Online Resources; http://www.telmemor.net) initiative, which is assisting the libraries from the new member states (the 10 Eastern European countries added to the EU in May 2004) in becoming full members of The European Library. Additional EU funding has been applied for under the commission's eContentplus Programme.
The collections are wide and varied. To give just a flavor, among them are The British Library Integrated Catalogue, the Collection of the National Digital Library from the National Library of Portugal, Finnish newspapers from 1771 to 1890, WWII posters from Nazi-occupied Netherlands, scientific journals from Serbia, and many unique treasures such as illuminated manuscripts and ancient maps.
While the next few years will see a steady growth in collections, the attention of the management team, which is based in Holland's national library (the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague), will also be directed at access, particularly multilingual capability, and on encouraging usage.
Following a workshop held in September 2005, The European Library and the DELOS Network of Excellence on Digital Libraries (http://www.delos.info) decided to work together on improving user navigation and tools for multilingual access. DELOS is an initiative funded by the European Commission to promote digital library research and development in Europe. The European Library's navigation will be explored by testing out the DAFFODIL (distributed agents for user-friendly access of digital libraries; http://www.daffodil.de) front end, which was produced by the University of Duisberg, a DELOS partner. Multilingual aspects will be considered at a workshop scheduled for this spring.
The desire to increase and encourage usage comes out of a survey that The European Library commissioned from IRN Research (http://www.irn-research.com) during May and June of 2005. Users of the portal liked the concept but found the implementation lacking. Nearly 75 percent of the 193 respondents found problems with the search process. As with most Web-based search services, users tended to use the simple search facility rather than select the most appropriate collections first using the advanced search option. The simple search uses only 12 of the 115 databases and, therefore, potentially misses out on 90 percent of the available material. Certainly, the beta version that was online before November did not make it very clear what was and what was not being searched at any particular point in the process. Nor did it make it easy to discover whether users were likely to retrieve a complete digital object or a bibliographic record. User comments have been taken to heart, and version 1.1 was intended to address many of these problems. An ongoing test plan has been launched that aims to continually improve search functionality in the further releases planned for 2006 (version 1.2 is expected to be released at the end of the first quarter).
One of the greatest challenges-which once overcome will lead to a real improvement in accessibility and usage-is to allow searching in one language with retrieval from all languages. Guidelines for partner libraries require them to translate all top-level pages into English, French, or German.
An issue yet to be decided is whether The European Library will form the basis for the European digital library that was so strongly promoted by Bibliotheque Nationale de France (BNF) director Jean-Noel Jeanneney early in 2005 in response to Google's announcement that it planned to digitize library collections for search via Google Print. But, in practice, perhaps it already is the basis. The BNF Gallica collection of digitized books and images is an integral part of The European Library. Although only approximately 7 percent of the total items available in the entire European Library collection are digital objects as opposed to bibliographic records, one of the conditions of public funding for digitization is that items are made freely available through The European Library.
SMS Grows at 25 Percent per Year
Short Message Service (SMS) texting has been slow to grow in the U.S., mostly because of conflicting cellular systems and a perception that premium pricing and the 160-character maximum length limits service options. In the rest of the world, SMS has been exploding. SMS is growing at 25 percent per annum in the U.K., according to the Mobile Data Association (MDA; http://www.mda-mobile data.org). Eighty-nine million texts were sent per day in September 2005 over U.K. GSM network operators, and MDA forecasted that a total of 32 billion messages would be sent during 2005. All this activity is estimated to have generated $35 billion for SMS out of a total $55 billion that was produced for mobile messaging as a whole in 2005.
New applications and services for SMS are proliferating, from TV voting to travel advice to job alerts. One service that has been growing rapidly since its April 22, 2004, launch is Any Question Answered (AQA; http://www.aqa.issuebits.com), a U.K. text service that lets anyone with a cell phone text a question to 63336 and, for £1, get an answer back in minutes. AQA answered its 1-millionth question on Nov. 17, 2005, when questions were coming in at a rate of more than 5,000 per day. You don't need to be a mathematical genius to figure out that at £1 per question, 5,000 questions per day generates more than £1.8 million per year (well over $3 million). Not bad for a service that started less than 2 years ago. That growth has been achieved through word-of-mouth recommendation, targeted marketing, and brand partnerships (including one with MTV).
AQA provides answers 24/7 by using more than 500 home-based researchers. Most of the researchers are located in the U.K., but, to help cover the night shift, some are in Australia and New Zealand. Researchers supplement Web searching with an AQA-produced database of answers to all questions that have previously been asked. Because much of the art in providing answers is to condense information into a response that is under the SMS character limit, the AQA database is invaluable in speeding response times to questions that arise over and over again.
AQA Has Answers
Questions sent to AQA range from, the trivial to the bizarre. Some are generated by competitors in pub quizzes, others by lost motorists, and many by angst-ridden teenagers with interests ranging from music lyrics to-you guessed it-sex. The first question asked was "What's the population of London?" and the millionth was "Name Linkin Park's DJ." Recurring questions include those of the "Who is X?" type, where the users just want to know what's known about themselves, as well as more philosophical posers such as "What is the meaning of life?"
Answers are required to balance speed and concision with warmth and humor, preferably providing a response that goes beyond customer expectations. A particular favorite of mine is:
Q: Is it is legal to urinate in a policeman's helmet?
A: It is an urban myth that it is legal to urinate in a PC's helmet, regardless of your medical condition. It is almost bound to cause great [offense].
The company behind AQA, IssueBits, Ltd., was formed in 2002 by Colly Myers, former CEO of Symbian and managing director of Psion, PLC. The idea for the service was apparently conceived when Myers and co-founders Bill Batchelor, development director, and Paul Cockerton, marketing director, were trying to answer a particularly difficult crossword question and decided to phone a friend for help.
IssueBits hopes to expand the service outside the U.K. this year, initially in Europe. Cockerton told me that the system is set up to handle multiple languages but that each country will have its own AQA database and dedicated researchers. At present there are no plans to expand into the U.S., where, despite recent growth, SMS texting and premium services still lag behind Europe.
Ask a Librarian Too!
Readers may remember that the July edition of this column reported on a question-answering service provided by the U.K. public library system via the People's Network. Soft launched in May 2005, the Enquire service (http://www.peoples network.gov.uk/enquire) was officially launched to the public nationally on Oct. 19. Customers of this 24/7 service are connected directly to a librarian for an interactive "chat room" style session; they may also opt to receive responses via e-mail. The intent is to provide users with the same qualified librarian assistance over the Internet as they would receive from talking to a librarian face-to-face or by telephone. Ninety-six U.K. libraries are currently participating, with overseas libraries providing support outside normal business hours.
Figures provided to me at the end of last November showed that the number of questions taken had increased from around 20 or so per day before the national launch to around 40 per day afterward. A total of just fewer than 8,000 questions had been handled since May, with 28 percent of questions answered by librarian partners in the U.S. and Canada. OK, so AQA answers nearly as many questions in a day as Enquire handled in 6 months, but there's a world of difference between a 160-character answer to a trivia question and an interactive Q&A session with a qualified librarian. Nonetheless, it's great to see innovative concepts applied by both traditional information providers and new entrepreneurs, each working in an environment best suited for their particular skills and experience.
Short Message Service texting has been slow to grow in the U.S. In the rest of the world, it has been exploding.
Jim Ashling runs Ashling Consulting, an independent consultancy for the information industry. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Send your letters about this column to email@example.com.…