Semantic Web and Libraries
26 Library Systems Seminar
Rome, 17-19 April 2002

The Italian Digital Library (BDI)
a survey

By Francesca Niutta
Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma


First of all, let me introduce myself. I am the curator of manuscripts and rare books collections of the National Library of Rome, and I am also responsible for the coordination of its digitisation projects. I shall give you a short overview of the Italian Digital Library, of its goals and guidelines, and I shall focus on its first project. It concerns manuscripts and rare books; it will be completed and available on the Web in few months.

The BDI is a three-year project funded by the Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities (I would like to remind you that Italian state libraries depend on this Ministry). The project was established in 2001. The guidelines for the institution of the BDI were drawn at the National Conference of libraries in Padua. A feasibility study was assigned to Gabriele Lunati, who will tell you about it himself. A National Committee for the coordination of the Italian Digital Library was set up and the three-year plan was launched.

The BDI’s objectives within its policy framework – as stated on the website of the Ministry for Cultural Heritage - include:

I. Access to cultural heritage

II. Preservation of cultural heritage

III. Maintenance and management of electronic resources.

I shall focus on the first two objectives (access and preservation of cultural heritage), which are strictly complementary.

The BDI’s policy is coordinated by the National Committee. The National Committee consists of directors of state libraries, experts of the Ministry, representatives of Regional institutions and the University. The Committee also establishes criteria for selecting the contents of the digital library.

In recent years, just like in other European countries, several individual digitisation projects of different kinds of library documents have been carried out by some Italian institutions. As a result, a certain amount of digitised material could be found on the Web; it consisted mostly of scattered items (e.g. illuminated pages of manuscripts, rarely entire collections or books). There were also exceptions, such as GeoWeb, still in progress, which features the cartographic collections of the Biblioteca Marciana of Venice, or the Florentine Galileo Digitale; both include online catalogues of entire collections with a search engin and digital images. But these previous attempts often risked lacking cohesion and coordination - just like some of similar initiatives abroad. Anyway, this phase, that we could call ‘experimental’, was historically necessary and useful for the next developments. It has led to better define goals and ways to use digitisation, and it has also led to realise that a coordination among institutions and projects would be desirable, in order to avoid duplications of initiatives and a waste of resources. This role of coordination and promotion of digitisation projects is now fulfilled by the National Committe of the Italian Digital Library.

The goal of the BDI is to create coherent collections of digitised documents based on the same software and using uniform standards and formats. These principles were first fixed by the National Committee, and have been reaffirmed at public conventions, such as the International Seminar organised by the Ministry’s General Direction for Libraries; it was held in Rome last October, 2001. Also the choice of the software and the definition of the standards and formats for different types of documents are determined by the National Committee. As to the opportunity of aiming at coherent contents while applying uniform standards, I would like to remind you that it was pointed out also in the Principles stated last year on the basis of international experiences at the European Meeting of Lund (the Meeting aimed at creating a coordination mechanism for digitisation programs in Europe).

The first project to be launched by the National Committee is about digitisation of handwritten catalogues of historical collections in the Italian state libraries and in the major non-state ones as well. Contemporarily, a census was promoted of on-going digitisation activities and projects in Italian libraries, in order to have a complete panorama of them, for the planning of further initiatives.

Until now, ancient books and manuscripts have had a priority in libraries’ digitisation programs. This is because they address the basic requirements for digitisation. On one hand their preservation needs a particular care; the faithful reproduction that digitisation offers is highly suitable for consultation and copies for end users, so safeguarding the originals. On the other hand, publication on the Web of this kind of material is not subject to copyright restrictions, and this allows avoiding legal complications.

But before going on, some words are necessary about our historical manuscript and early printed heritage. As everyone knows, Italian libraries are extraordinarily rich in ancient books and manuscripts. Safeguarding the originals through digitisation and granting a direct knowledge of the cultural heritage also to remote users through the Internet are goals on which everyone can agree. But there is a preliminary step to be taken, that is making the existence of documents known via their catalogues. Because of this reason the National Committee decided to give a priority to ancient catalogues and inventories of the historical collections. The project includes catalogues of 26 state libraries and three non-state ones. The latter are the Biblioteca Gambalunghiana of Rimini, the Malatestiana of Cesena and the Biblioteca Panizzi of Reggio Emilia. All of them are rich in famous and ancient collections of books and manuscripts.

Manuscript collections are still now often described in handwritten catalogues, that can be consulted only locally. Also collections of printed books can sometimes be available just in handwritten volume catalogues. The first project of the BDI is therefore to make the content of historical catalogues available on the Web through digital reproduction.

Recently also projects for scientific on line cataloguing of several manuscript collections have been funded by the Ministry for Cultural Heritage. The items are to be described ex novo by the individual libraries; the software MANUS, supplied by ICCU (Central Institute for the Union Catalogue), is to be applied. But scientific cataloguing of manuscripts requires time. In the meanwhile, the availibility on the Internet of the digitised historical catalogues offers a cheap and quick alternative in order to make the content of the collections known also to remote users. (The expense is significantly less than a new cataloguing of the items).

As I said before, the historical catalogues to be digitised are mostly handwritten. Some of them are card catalogues, other ones are topographic inventories with alphabetic indexes. They will be digitised in image form; a software has been developed for this purpose and will be supplied by the National Committe to all the libraries involved in the project. When the project will be completed, a sort of union catalogue of Italian libraries’ manuscripts and early printed books collections will be available on the Internet.

To come back to the goals and general guidelines of the BDI, as to the contents the main criterion is that of creating "closed packages" (or, with a metaphor, "mattoni", which mean "bricks" in English). In order to receive approval and funding by the Committe, every project must aim at making available on the Web a corpus, an entire collection (of books, serials, manuscripts, photos, music), or a thematic unit. The Committee has also appointed working groups of experts with the task of analysing and defining particular issues connected to digitisation and IT, e.g. standards and formats for particular types of material (such as music, serials, manuscripts), staff training, copyright, etc.

But, in my opinion, an important task of the BDI would be the creation of an inventory of digitised collections, that we – I mean library people, but also end users - are eagerly waiting for. (The existing ones, although supplying links to other websites, are anyway too partial to be really useful). The offers on the Web multiply day by day; there is already a lot of scattered digitised materials of "cultural and scientific content". But this does not mean that it has become easier or quicker to find what you need (a certain text, a music score, a frontespiece, an engraving), even if it is there. The Web is still and even more a labyrinth. Once again I will mention the Lund Principles. One of their statements sounds like that: European cultural and scientific digitised content on the Web has to be made "visible and accessible…by setting up national inventories". Inventories will be our Ariadne’s thread.

To end with, let me add one more note in the margin. Somebody wanders how many users can address a digital library that features such sophisticated cultural material, and whether it is worth while spending so much money for a presumably very limited target. This can be a reasonable question. But the traditional physical library itself, although virtually open to everybody, as a matter of fact until now has been reserved to the same limited target consisting of a few educated minorities. On the contrary, the virtual library, while supplying specialists with the documents they need all over the world, for the first time grants access to and knowledge of the ‘cultural heritage’ to a universal public.