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Structural reforms needed for funding digitisation


By hannusa - Posted on 02 January 2014

The importance of digitisation of cultural history was highlighted in a recent article by Kai Ekholm, the Director of the National Library (newspaper Helsingin Sanomat 2013-12-24) where he called for a national digitization initiative, following Norway’s example. Digitisation enables use of historical material in a modern way.

Unlike cultural history, for natural history there are no established funding channels available.

Finland’s natural history museums contain an estimated 20 million samples. Out of these about 1 % has been imaged, and 10-15% catalogued in databases. In the whole world there are 1-2 billion such samples. This information is sorely needed in research of the extent and impact of global environmental problems. For instance the UN has recommended making this information available.

Building of the necessary research infrastructure began, when the Finnish Museum of Natural History and the University of Eastern Finland established Digitarium in Joensuu in 2010. Support from the EU structural funds was of decisive importance in this. In 2013, already about 200,000 samples were digitised in Joensuu.

Digitisation is just part of curation of collections, which means that the job will never be finished, as the collections grow faster than they are being digitised. Moreover, resources for curation of collections are continuously shrinking. The ministry only funds universities for their research and education activities. Services for society, which included collections and digitisation, are not being funded. The Academy of Finland did not include digitisation in its roadmap for research infrastructures, mainly because the universities did not prioritise it. EU does not fund digitisation, because this concerns national assets. The national centre for technology and innovation TEKES has concluded that digitalisation renews economy and society. Our experience is that also the funding organisations should renew their practices.

”Digital services must be made an export industry that replaces manufacturing exports”, says representative of DIGILE Ltd on TEKES’ web site. Indeed, because Finland is still lacking funding channels, Digitarium is now aiming for international markets. The national herbarium of Norway has been lorried from Oslo to Joensuu for digitisation, which work has proceeded well. Data from the imaged samples is being transcribed in the north of Norway by previously unemployed workers.

Academic unemployment is a problem in Finland, which could be alleviated by digitisation. Good experience in doing that was gained during the stimulus funding that was available for a short time after the recent recession. Unemployed people gain experience on providing digital services and become part of a global virtual collaborative community. We could easily offer meaningful distance work for thousands of unemployed academic graduates.

To tackle these possibilities requires creative thinking and structural reforms in ministries, offices and universities.

Natural history is also cultural history, because the collections keep records of activities of researchers, their observations and commentary. The europeana.eu portal already contains over one million natural history objects. We are very keen in participating the collaborative digitisation initiative called for by Kai Ekholm.

Hannu Saarenmaa