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Gastblog: Digitization of Heritage Collections as Indicator of Innovation

21 september 2015

Onlangs verscheen de publicatie 'Digitization of Heritage Collections as Indicator of Innovation', van Trilce Navarrete en Karol Jan Borowiecki. Voor het onderzoek is uitgebreid gebruik gemaakt van de resultaten van ENUMERATE. DEN vroeg de onderzoekers om een gastblog te schrijven over hun ontdekkingen.

Cultural industries are supposed to fuel innovation and the economy but there is little attention to the source of all inspiration: content repositories. How can we stimulate heritage institutions to more digitization and content dissemination so that innovation is facilitated across sectors?
The recipe for success seems simple: new technology leads to innovation and availability of raw materials (rich content) fuels economic growth. That is why organizations are adopting a digital work practice, to enable renewal, and why access to information has become a valuable commodity. A great source of information, in the form of cultural and research content, is held in European memory institutions. Estimates place a market value of €27 billion to "the biggest single information content resource for the creation of value-added information content and services."1
The ENUMERATE survey reports that heritage organizations have made available less than 10% of collections via online channels. This raises questions as what are the best strategies to ensure profitability of the collections and help overcome the challenges that hinder further content dissemination.
Until now, digitization of heritage collections has been considered in isolation and not as part of a national context, even though government subsidies and national policies strongly influence institutions. To fill this void, and to gain clearer understanding on the subject, we conducted a quantitative analysis linking the level of digitization and online publication to innovation. We argue that a greater share of digitized collections (defined as digitally documented objects including an image) and online publication result in a higher ability to innovate.  

Figure 1. Publication of collections online per country

We mapped the institutional make up using the ENUMERATE data set, and we sketched the national context using GDP per capita, population size, educational attainment and individual use of the internet as macro indicators. At national level, innovation can be linked to level of education and to digital literacy (represented as personal access to the Internet). Wealth of a country, surprisingly, did not lead to a higher level of innovation. Instead, ability and willingness to adopt digital technology appear to have a greater influence on a country’s potential to innovate. The analyses show that wealthier countries are allocating incidental costs towards digital activities, indicating a transition to a digital work practice though results are not yet visible. Government funds are often allocated towards digital projects that favour creative and commercial use, neglecting preservation activities, which suggests a funding priority that foster further independence from subsidies and that satisfy an immediate market. Countries with larger population have a smaller share of collections digitized and there is a lower use of the available materials.
At institutional level, we find that the presence of a digitization policy is an important determinant for innovation. The greater the technical know-how, reflected in specialized staff and in multiple digital policies (e.g. access, sustainability), the larger the share of digitized collections and therefore the greater ability to innovate. Larger institutions were again not directly linked to a better performance, suggesting inflexibility in bureaucratic organizations. Instead of budget size, we find slack (available resources after covering costs) to positively influence digitization.

Figure 2. Digitization policy by share of digitization

We identify a gap between the macro environment and the heritage sector to foster innovation. While the macro trend to foster digitization supports an independence of funds to satisfy an immediate market, micro determinants that enhance digitization rely on structural funds to develop long-term strategies. We also find domain characteristics of behaviour that, if shared, could benefit the entire heritage sector. While museums have a large share of digitized collections, libraries have a higher online publication. Though it is not possible to argue for causality, it is clear that online availability of information enhances literacy, reuse and innovation.
We therefore argue for a revision of the national and institutional approaches to digitization where more attention is to be given to building a common infrastructure, across domains, from which all organizations can innovate. This requires sustainable funding to allow organizations to plan, to develop slack, and to hire or train skilled staff able to develop sustainable policies to guide a digital work practice. A higher dissemination of content would reap on the investment towards digitization and would only enrich our information society. Heritage organizations are eager to serve a digital literacy demand.
Karol J. Borowiecki is Associate Professor in the department of Business and Economics at the University of Southern Denmark. Trilce Navarrete is Postdoc researcher at the same department. The full paper can be downloaded at

1 - Jancic, Maja Bogataj, et al. (2015) LAPSI Policy Recommendation N.5 The Proposed Inclusion of Cultural and Research Institutions in the Scope of PSI Directive. Brussels: EC.
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