A Call to Action on Digital Cultural Heritage in Germany

Mass digitization of cultural heritage objects is an urgent need: In Germany, this is the common ground on which stakeholders from multiple fields have formulated a “wake-up” call to political decision-makers. Whether perceived as the last chance for the preservation of soon-to-be-lost culture, as in Syria (e.g. the Syrian Heritage Archive Project),[1] or as an opportunity for education and inspiration through free access to museum objects (e.g. Europeana), digitization enables people to see and use cultural material beyond its physical limitations.

Photograph of the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria.
This photograph of the temple of Bel at Palmyra, Syria, destroyed by ISIS in 2015, is an example of the kinds of material collected by projects like the Syrian Heritage Archive Project.

As research on these objects is a key factor in achieving these goals, digitization methods should meet academic quality standards and the large scale of the work to be done demands coordination. Within the humanities research community, the combination of digitized sources and digital technologies has propelled innovations and led to new methods which have been grouped under the term digital humanities. However, in order to be useful as primary sources for digital research, digitized cultural heritage objects have to meet the requirements of computational methods (e.g. quality and metadata). A working paper recently published by the research consortium DARIAH-DE, a national research project for developing digital research infrastructure for the arts and humanities, is intended to help move these goals—digitization and the establishment of a source base for digital computational research—forward by increasing public advocacy for these needs.[2]

The Humanities as Stakeholder

Among other projects, DARIAH-DE has established a stakeholder group on digital research collections consisting of representatives of different disciplines and fields from the LAM (libraries/archives/museums) sector, universities, academies, and research organizations and infrastructures. Earlier in 2018, the group published a working paper analyzing the current state of cultural heritage digitization in Germany and the requirements necessary for digitally-enhanced research. (The authors of this blog post participated in the stakeholder group, but this post serves more as an interpretation than as an executive summary of the working paper.) The working paper’s conclusion was bluntly pessimistic: “The available funds are not sufficient for a coordinated digitization program of the German cultural heritage. With plans and numbers lacking, Germany is not able to provide information on the current status of object digitization.”[3] However, the intention of the stakeholder group was not simply to request more funds, but to offer advice and provide a requirement analysis necessary to foster the implementation of a nationwide digitization program.

Structural Borders and Barriers

From the current status report one can identify several structural issues that have prevented a coordinated digitization effort in Germany:

Image of a book page being scanned with the fingertip of the digitization technician visible.
A flawed Google Books scan
  • No numbers: Funding programs, reports and other publications offer no key figures, statistics or any other measures to gather reliable quantitative information on digitization with respect to content, amount and data quality. Furthermore, neither project managers nor funders have addressed the lack of this kind of information.
  • Federalism: The responsibility and authority for matters concerning culture lies with the states of the Federal Republic of Germany. The states do not share similar funding structures, nor do the relevant actors or institutions have a system in place for mutual assistance and cooperation.
  • Project funding: Digitization may be part of a research project but is almost always a subsidiary goal that is not necessarily funded. Although there are very basic criteria in terms of technical standards, the selection and documentation of objects follows the needs of individual projects with no overarching framework in mind.
  • LAMs: The institutions holding cultural heritage objects and conducting digitization – libraries, archives and museums – differ significantly in terms of collections, organizational conditions, and mandates. These different prerequisites demand variations in digitization plans.
  • Researcher silence: The research community has not sufficiently stated its requirements. Public-private digitization partnerships (e.g. the Bavarian State Library and Google) have demonstrated the technical possibilities but also revealed the (unfulfilled and unexpressed) needs for standards in quality and usability.[4] The development and application of metadata standards driven by the research community are still an exception.[5]
  • Portal phenomenon: In the last decade, multiple web platforms presenting digitized cultural heritage have been established or are in development. These kinds of presentation infrastructures are often implemented at different layers of government (e.g. bavarikon,[6] the portal for Bavaria > German Digital Library > Europeana), but usually there are no standards for coordination and content production between these layers.

Innovation Potential and Requirements

The DARIAH-DE working paper describes five particularly important use cases illustrating the potential of and the need for high-quality digitized cultural heritage content:

A network analysis graph including the names of characters in the play "Leaving the Theatre."
A visualization of the network of characters in Gogol’s “Leaving the Theatre,” derived from a digitized script of the play, can help researchers better understand the play’s structure.
More at https://dlina.github.io/Gogol-Leaving-the-Theatre/
  • Machine-readable text corpora to enable digital literary studies research using network analysis methods to produce new insights.[7]
  • Worldwide access to scattered source material for Jewish history.[8]
  • Public access through web portals to increase findability, awareness and use of archival collections.[9]
  • The curation and enrichment of historical film material to enable researcher and public access to these unique historical sources.
  • The combination of metadata, data, and algorithms using visualization methods to significantly expand methods of analysis and interpretation (i.e., cultural analytics).[10]

These use cases lead to the key argument that in order to reach the innovative potential of digitally-enhanced and computation-based methods in the humanities, the development of digital cultural heritage collections needs to meet the requirements of these research methods. This implies a shift from pure retro-digitization towards machine-readable and semantically-enriched digital objects. As a starting point, the working paper outlines a potential digitization classification for different object types, for example image-based digital copies.[11]

As is always the case with starting points, the schematics can be debated, but research communities and LAMs (as well as other cultural institutions) have to join forces in order to agree on and develop common practices and standards they can recommend to digitization projects. In addition, close cooperation and a common voice are needed to articulate both the general need and the special requirements of digitized cultural heritage objects for humanities research. The working paper’s comprehensive overview of the digital cultural heritage landscape has fostered discussion and spurred the release of an open letter endorsed by dozens of organizations, institutions, and researchers urging policy makers in Germany to support a comprehensive strategy for mass digitization.[12] As a 2007 report previously stated, there is “no knowledge gap, there is a lack of action.”[13] Competencies have been developed and the technology has been created, but the coordination is still missing.


[1] Browse digitized heritage objects here: https://arachne.dainst.org/project/syrher.

[2] As a research infrastructure project DARIAH-DE’s activities include support for teaching, building competency networks, and providing a framework for methodological discussions and strategic activities in the field of digitally enhanced research in the arts and humanities. See “DARIAH-DE in Brief,” https://de.dariah.eu/dariah-de-in-kurze.

[3] Lisa Klaffki, Stefan Schmunk, and Thomas Stäcker, “Stand der Kulturgutdigitalisierung in Deutschland,”
DARIAH-DE Working Papers #26, 2018, URN: urn:nbn:de:gbv:7-dariah-2018-1-3, pp. 5–6.

[4] This is demonstrated by the failure of the Google Books project to produce digital copies reusable by the research community. On the one hand, the quality of the data produced by Google was low, but on the other hand, the criticism indicated the lack of agreement on research community–defined standards for digitization. An overview is given here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Google_Books#Content_issues_and_criticism

[5] The Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), http://www.tei-c.org/index.xml, is one of these exceptions.

[6] See the Portal for Bavaria, https://www.bavarikon.de. Other examples include, from Lower Saxony,  http://kulturerbe.niedersachsen.de and, from Cologne, https://www.kulturelles-erbe-koeln.de

[7] See for example the Digital Literary Network Analysis Working Group: https://dlina.github.io.

[8] Examples of projects providing global access to scattered source materials documenting Jewish history are networks like Judaica Europeana, http://www.judaica-europeana.eu/ and meta search engines like http://www.steinheim-institut.de/vf/ and the research infrastructure EHRI, https://www.ehri-project.eu. However, none of these projects has a digitization program and thus this remains a task and an issue for institutions.

[9] The German Digital Library, https://www.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/ offers access to approximately 9.5 million digitized objects. The U.S. equivalent is the privately-funded Digital Public Library of America, https://dp.la/.

[10] Image plotting, using http://lab.softwarestudies.com/p/imageplot.html, is one of the methods; an example featuring Impressionist painters can be found here: https://flic.kr/p/bx6RUU.

[11] Translated by the authors. Other object types are text-based copies, audio and audio-visual copies, as well as a classification for digital copies independent of its media. See Klaffki et al., “Stand der Kulturgutdigitalisierung in Deutschland,” pp. 18–23.

[12] Memorandum: “Digitalisierung von Kulturgut,” DHd-Blog, April 17, 2018, https://dhd-blog.org/?p=9849.

[13] Bestandsaufnahme zur Digitalisierung von Kulturgut und Handlungsfelder, report by the Fraunhofer Institute for Intelligent Analysis and Information Systems, 2007, p. 20, https://www.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/static/de/sc_documents/div/bkm_end_01.pdf.


Fabian Cremer is the Coordinator of Research Databases at the Max Weber Foundation in Bonn. He studied art history and art education in Frankfurt and Vienna. Since 2011 he has supported and advised researchers in the fields of Digital Research. He has worked at Frankfurt University, at the Göttingen State and University Library, and also the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. He has contributed to several information systems and web applications through all lifecycle stages and areas including data modeling, interface design and workflow management. Beside the fields of Digital Humanities he explores methods of research data management, develops institutional workflows and is engaged in developing new forms of scholarly communication and practices to encourage openness, cooperation and participation.

Thorsten Wübbena has studied art history, cultural studies, and history. He works as an academic staff member at the Art Historical Institute of the University of Frankfurt and from 2007 to 2012 he was there in a leading function in the DFG project “Sandrart.net: A net-based research platform on the history of art and culture in the 17th century.” Between 2011 and 2014 he was a researcher affiliated with the DFG-funded project “Music video aesthetics on portable devices” at the University of Heidelberg. Since September 2014 he has been is Directeur de recherche (Digital Humanities) at the German Center for Art History in Paris (DFK Paris). His main areas of work are in the field of information technology in art history and research database development (including data models and representations of knowledge).


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