Not the technical issues, but thinking differently

The digitization of the Swedish cultural heritage

The challenge in digitizing and providing access to our heritage lies not in the technical issues, but rather in being able to think differently, according to Rolf Källman, the project leader who heads Digisam, the digitization coordinating group. His group, or secretariat, has been assigned the task of coordinating the digitization of the cul-tural heritage of Sweden.

This is no small task Rolf Källman has been given, a task whose scope is none too clear either. But he is happy about this.

- It’s good to have a broad commission, says Rolf Källman, because that gives us the possibility of interpreting what is most important.

This commission stems from the desire of the Swedish government to fulfil its commitment to the EU’s digital agenda and to participate in Europeana, the wide-ranging cooperative project for the access to and use of our common European heritage.

Forming strategy and collaboration

The chief responsibility of the secretariat is to work toward the realisation of the strategy adopted by the Swedish government regarding the digitization of the Swedish heritage. In order to do this they make use of such tools as knowledge building, issuing guidelines on technical issues, standards and se-lection criteria. Rolf Källman emphasizes that the goal of digitization is for Swedish heritage to be widely used and reused, thereby adding value in both expected and unexpected ways. In order to achieve this, the task is to work together and begin collaboration with the 20 or more state authorities and institutions which collect, preserve and provide access to information about Swedish heritage – chiefly libraries, archives and museums. In 2014 the secretariat is to submit a report which will form the basis for decisions regarding how work on the coordination of the digitization of Swedish heritage should continue.

- We also collaborate with non-state organisations such as genealogical research organisations, regional and municipal museums, the local cultural heritage movement know as ‘hem-bygdsrörelsen’ and private individuals. The idea is that the fruits of our labour will be of use to the whole cultural heritage community, says Rolf Källman.

The secretariat has still only been in existence for less than a year and comprises, in addition to Rolf, only two people, one researcher and one project coordinator. So it is a big job for a small team.

The digitization issue seems to have begun to mature

At the moment we are spending much of our time wearing out our shoes going round meeting participating authorities and listening to what they want, what their priorities are and how we might cooperate together. There is a lot of network building, says Rolf Käll-man, who has a long history within digitization, including work with the National Heritage Board. Despite the breadth of the task and the complexity of the issues involved he believes the reception from the participating authorities has been very positive.

- The digitization issue seems to have begun to mature, he says. When we talked to various authorities a few years back, many felt dubious about the idea of common solutions, often because they felt their work was specialised, requiring a specific approach. But that is no longer the case. Most are very positive about the collaboration; they seem to have understood the importance of avoiding duplication of work and of dividing up roles and responsibilities in order to keep costs down and so forth.

Looking at the secretariat’s mission it can appear somewhat abstract. To build knowledge and issue guidelines are laudable objectives but what, in purely concrete terms, do they want to achieve?

To provide infrastructure and access

- Two things to begin with, says Rolf Källman. To start with, to put in place an infrastructure, for example access to stable and rapid broadband connection for the whole of the heritage community so that the information has a high-way to travel on. And, within the framework of this well-developed infrastructure, solutions for things such as preservation and provision of access. Secondly to suggest and agree on roles and division of responsibility of common issues. Where possible we need to work together on cost-effective, shared solutions and to stop all chasing after the same ball.

There are currently a number of digitization projects being run by various Swedish authorities. For example the National Archives are digitizing a large number of maps. The National Library is running a development project, in conjunction with the National Archives, called Digidaily, to digitise daily newspapers en masse. The Swedish Film Institute is digitizing old Swedish feature films and the National Heritage Board is digitizing photographs and information about remains, buildings and such of relevance to Swedish art and culture.

- What we have noticed meeting the participating authorities is that many digitizing projects are not the product of any strategic thinking or long-term objectives, says Rolf Källman. Digitization projects are often the result of various local enthusiasts who have put energy into ensuring that their particular material should be digitised. It might also happen that some money is donated out of the blue for the digitization of certain specific collections

- The twenty or more participating authorities have all been instructed by the government to come up with plans for their digitization. Digisam will run and support work to make these plans and strategies consistent. The aim is also to clearly formulate a number of strategic issues which we can focus on and run collectively, explains Rolf Källman

Institution perspective or user perspective

One interesting question is from what general perspective digitization should be conducted. In many projects we consider things from a national and international perspective. The user’s perspective, on the other hand, is often local or regional. They want to know more about local history, or the history of their own family which can be at cross purposes with the institutions who have an internal view of their collections. Also, the whole digitization issue is just so new that it has been difficult to predict which groups would want to make use of the digitized material. The focus has hitherto often been on high-end research. The general public is a more diffuse group and hard to define. The question also arises as to what they will want to use the material for.

- My dream is that pupils in primary and secondary schools can benefit from having access to our digital heritage. Children and teenagers often like to use material and create stuff themselves, don’t they?, says Rolf Källman. He hopes that educators and creators of learning materials will be open to digitized cultural heritage in the future and will create the opportunity for school children to use and interact with the material themselves.

We need to know more about what the users want and we need to involve them in our work. Of course it’s difficult for users to request information when they don’t know what’s there. But we have noticed that pictures and audio-visual material are very popular and are used a lot when they become available. And here again there are big possibilities for school children to get to understand why our society is like it is today, for example, why big housing areas were built as part of the ‘Million Project’ in the sixties and seventies, and so on. But this means we have to con-sciously endeavour to make as much information as we can about our modern history available and usable.

So Digisam faces many challenges. Institutions often find it difficult to interpret the copyright laws and to navigate among all the reports, regulations and models they need in digitization work.

- This is where we have an important role as facilitators and guides. Another thing is this, the technology around digitization is a complex issue, especially as it is developing so fast. But that is still one of the minor problems, says Rolf Källman.

The challenge in digitizing and providing access to our heritage doesn’t really lie in the technical issues, says Rolf Källman but rather in daring to let go of our digital material and thinking differently.


Rickard Carlsson

Press- and Communication Officer

Communications Division

National Library of Sweden

rickard.carlsson AT kb.se


The Digisam secretariat is run by a steering group with representatives from the National Archives, the National Library, the National Heritage Board and the Central Museums. The work of the secretariat is to be evaluated in the first half of 2014. Based on this the National Archives will present a report with a recommendation on the future work of the secretariat after 2015. The report will be prepared in collaboration with other participating authorities and institutions.

Rickard Carlsson Press- and Communications Officer at National Library of Sweden