European Union culture ministers have backed plans to transform Europe's massive music archives into digital form and make them available on the Internet.

European Union culture ministers have backed plans to transform Europe's massive music archives into digital form and make them available on the Internet.

The ministers, who meeting in Brussels Monday (Nov. 13) and Tuesday (Nov. 14), gave the green light to long held plans for a European Digital Library, which would gather digitized cultural material including music, films, broadcasts, pictures, books, newspapers, and photographs. The operation is expected to cover millions of hours of music and video in broadcasting archives, as well as books and bound periodicals from Europe's many libraries.

"There is a real demand for digital content," the ministers said in a joint statement. "Digitization and online accessibility of our cultural heritage can fuel creative efforts and support activities in other sectors."

However, they acknowledged that the actual efforts to develop a European Digital Library had been painfully slow, and national governments needed an EU co-ordinator to ensure the process moved faster.

The first challenge for governments is to undertake the conversion of stored content in traditional formats into digital form: music on vinyl records or tape, celluloid film, analog broadcast, and photographic negatives material. The next steps will be to ensure the material is easily available online, and that the digital information will also be available for future generations.

The move by the ministers follows a call in April by six EU leaders supporting a virtual European library to make Europe's cultural and scientific record accessible for all. The digital libraries initiative aims at making European information resources easier and more interesting to use in an online environment.

EU officials insist their initiative is not a reaction to Google's digital library project, but admit the Internet giant's efforts have shown the potential of the online environment for making information more widely accessible.

This is a huge undertaking: across Europe there is an estimated 100 to 200 million hours of audiovisual material, again mainly sitting on shelves. The BBC archive alone has about one million hours of material on around 100 km of shelves. Such material is notoriously difficult to access, because it is fragile, expensive to duplicate, and requires expensive and complex equipment to view.

This material is also very much at risk, because all audiovisual formats have a short "shelf-life" unless kept cold and dry -- and even when properly stored they remain fragile and are subject to format and equipment obsolescence, and remain hard to access.

The content also requires new archiving techniques. A recent Danish law is expected to be used as a model for the rest of the EU; in 2004, the Danish parliament passed a new legal deposit act which added sound recordings and static digital publications (CD-ROMs, net publications etc) to the list of material to be collected and stored. According to the new legal deposit law of 2004, dynamic digital publications, movies and radio and television programs should be gathered and kept.

Another example is the official archiving of Mozart's 600 musical works on 24,000 sheets of music and 8,000 pages of critical articles. The Internationale Stiftung Mozart is currently developing a Digital Mozart Edition (DME) to make Mozart's scanned works freely available worldwide to everybody on the Internet.