Polona/Labs

[Polona in 2013]

When the new version of POLONA was launched in 2013, it certainly epitomised huge progress made in providing access to digital collections – or in more general terms – in opening the vaults holding the entire cultural and information heritage. The resources, growing each day (suffice it to say that we started with humble collection of 40,000 objects, which reached 2,000,000 in October 2017), innovative systems of display and use of digitized materials, files downloadable in the highest resolution available – all these meant the revolution on a global scale in terms of the approach to technology and the sole concept of developing the accessibility of library resources.

The current version of POLONA/2million goes even further: open API, unrestricted downloads in all file formats available, a feature allowing to display the text layer on digitized objects, panels with press and institutions, and the functionality for creating customized collections – to name just a few exemplary features offered by the site which is regularly updated and has new functionalities extended on a regular basis.

However, launching each new version of POLONA is followed by the question: what more can be done? Have we reached the limits of collections’ accessibility determined by the optimized search features and unlimited data downloading?

Digital library collections are usually limited to digitized collections of their parent institutions or library consortia participating in one project. For obvious reasons, POLONA was launched at the National Library of Poland, and over the following years, the Princes Czartoryski Library, the collections of the Zbigniew Raszewski’s Theatre Institute, the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute and the National Ethnographic Museum joined in, and under one of the largest digitalization projects in the world – “Patrimonium” – the collections of the Jagiellonian Library will also become accessible for the public. The centralization of resources and unification of standards will not only facilitate the preservation of data, but also simplify the work of those who will no longer have to rely and be limited to aggregators of dispersed resources of various quality and degree of accessibility. However, it still remains a closed repository which is limited by the assumptions and policies of individual owners of collections, and the issue of “changing the attitude” towards digitization and sharing resources by institutions of culture is, regretfully, still valid. And even if the “squirrel away” syndrome (i.e. the tendency to conceal all data and under no circumstances disclose it to the public) is finally overcome, we will still be confined to a single interface and a single but closed – though vast – repository.

A chamster in: Atlas państwa zwierzęcego by Kurt Lampert (Warsaw, 1925) 

Meanwhile, another change which is already witnessed in digital libraries and users’ attitude is taking place; libraries are no longer the institutions dedicated to storing and providing access to the resources, but are also becoming a place to work with them. A common slogan among the creators of previous generations of digital libraries stating that the less time the user spends on the site – the better the site (sc. stipulating that the user found the information sought and downloaded the data onto his own device), considering the possibilities offered by contemporary applications and the development of online services, has become strikingly obsolete. Digital library should provide a set of tools to work with digitized materials and their derivative forms (such as text layers) and offer personalized user space. It should thus become a “library” par excellence: with reader’s “desk”, notes, bookmarks and all necessary accessories. This is where the digital space comes in POLONA offers the possibility to add notes and bookmarks, create own collections and manage user-created content.

While we can strive to develop and implement an optimal set of tools and functionalities, it is impossible to create a single universal interface that will be perfectly suited to the needs of each and every user. The expectations of a scientist preparing a text for editing differ from the tools needed for exhaustive query in press materials, or for iconography research; there are as many examples as we can imagine various cases and user types. Therefore, it would be necessary to enable the users to customize GUI or even more – to provide several options, while maintaining adequate flow and quality of data and access to their created content.

Therefore, why should we not combine this new openness with universal accessibility of resources or even emancipation from their original, predefined interfaces? And consequently, could the chosen interface allow the user to work with any object from any digital library in the world, and thus the term “openness” could be superseded by “interoperability”?

This new idea of openness has already emerged – as IIIF which is an abbreviated form of a somewhat enigmatic name for International Image Interoperability Framework. On the one hand, IIIF is a consortium (or even a “community”) of the world’s most important cultural institutions, academic and research centres, such as the British Library, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, the Smithsonian Institution, Oxford, Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Cambridge and, last but not least, the National Library of Poland. On the other hand, as the name suggests, it is a platform (framework) that defines standardized methods for sharing images online (which in this case basically refers to “digitized materials” or “cultural heritage”). The set of APIs (Image, Presentation, Search, Authentication) allows for multi-level structuring and combining the resources with metadata, searching and defining access rules (e.g. copyright protected materials).

How does it look in practice? For example, to compare several manuscripts from various sources, for example from the Bodleian Library, BnF and St. Gallen monastery using the IIIF manifest in JSON format, the user can skip the interface and even remove the GUI layer from the material and to display it in a single browser Mirador. The features include also advanced image adjustment functions, annotations (in the user-defined form), and even additional layers. It is particularly useful for scientists when creating workspaces, merging manuscripts the fragments of which have been deployed across many institutions and even “pasting” miniatures cut out by malevolent vandals-bibliophiles.

However, this is only a small set of features the IIIF offers. Owing to the system’s simplicity and flexibility, the platform offers the possibility to build solutions dedicated to small projects, experiments (especially the project of the Wroclaw University Library deserves particular attention here), or to manage large digital resources which are applicable in advanced projects, such as OMNIS. IIIF is an unprecedented initiative, and its interoperability provides a novel key enabling general access to digital collections.

Today, we are facing another revolution in providing access to library collections. During the presentation at the Conference of Directors of National Libraries in 2017, Tomasz Makowski, Ph.D., director of the National Library of Poland announced the implementation of all API IIIF in POLONA. Therefore, POLONA will not only become a fully interoperable library allowing the users to access its collections, but it will also provide an opportunity to use the digitized collections from all around the world.

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This publication was prepared within the framework of the Competence Centre of the National Library with regard to the digitisation of library resources, co-funded by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage.