Discover Europeana Collections, a Portal of 48 Million Free Artworks, Books, Videos, Artifacts & Sounds from Across Europe

MNAC 72

“Where is the wis­dom we have lost in knowl­edge? Where is the knowl­edge we have lost in infor­ma­tion?,” asked T.S. Eliot in lines from his play “The Rock.” His pre­scient descrip­tion of the dawn­ing infor­ma­tion age has inspired data sci­en­tists and their dis­senters for decades. Thir­ty-six years after Eliot’s prophet­ic lament over “End­less inven­tion, end­less exper­i­ment,” futur­ist Alvin Tof­fler described the effects of infor­ma­tion over­load in his book Future Shock, and though many of his pre­dic­tions haven’t aged well, his “prog­no­sis,” writes Fast Com­pa­ny, “was more accu­rate than not.” Among his many “Tof­flerisms” is one I believe Eliot would appre­ci­ate: “The illit­er­ate of the future will not be the per­son who can­not read. It will be the per­son who does not know how to learn.”

Indeed, the expo­nen­tial accu­mu­la­tion of data and infor­ma­tion, and the incred­i­ble amount of ready access would make both men’s heads spin. Inter­net archives grow vaster and vaster, their con­tents an embar­rass­ing rich­ness of the world’s trea­sures, and a per­haps even greater store of its obscu­ri­ties. Each week, it seems, we bring you news of one or two more open access data­bas­es filled with images, texts, films, record­ed music. It can indeed be dizzy­ing. And of all the archives I’ve sur­veyed, used in my own research, and pre­sent­ed to Open Cul­ture read­ers, none has seemed to me vaster than Euro­peana Col­lec­tions, a por­tal of “48,796,394 art­works, arte­facts, books, videos and sounds from across Europe,” sourced from well over 100 insti­tu­tions such as The Euro­pean Library, Europho­to, the Nation­al Library of Fin­land, Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Dublin, Museo Galileo, and many, many more, includ­ing con­tri­bu­tions from the pub­lic at large. Where does one begin?

europeana grammophone

In such an enor­mous ware­house of cul­tur­al his­to­ry, one could begin any­where and in an instant come across some­thing of inter­est, such as the stun­ning col­lec­tion of Art Nou­veau posters like that fine exam­ple at the top, “Cer­cle Art­s­tique de Schaer­beek,” by Hen­ri Pri­vat-Live­mont (from the Plandiu­ra Col­lec­tion, cour­tesy of Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalynya, Barcelona). One might enter any one of the avail­able inter­ac­tive lessons and cours­es on the his­to­ry of World War I or vis­it some of the many exhibits on the peri­od, with let­ters, diaries, pho­tographs, films, offi­cial doc­u­ments, and war pro­pa­gan­da. One might stop by the vir­tu­al exhib­it, “Pho­tog­ra­phy on a Sil­ver Plate,” a fas­ci­nat­ing his­to­ry of the medi­um from 1839–1860, or “Record­ing and Play­ing Machines,” a his­to­ry of exact­ly what it sounds like, or a gallery of the work of Swiss painter Jean Antoine Linck. All of the arti­facts have source and licens­ing infor­ma­tion clear­ly indi­cat­ed.

Vue du Mont-Blanc, prise du Sommet du Col de Balme

The pos­si­bil­i­ties may lit­er­al­ly be end­less, as the col­lec­tion con­tin­ues to expand at a rate far beyond the abil­i­ty of any one per­son, or team of peo­ple, or entire research insti­tute of peo­ple to match. It is easy to feel adrift in such a data­base as this, which stretch­es on like a Bor­ge­sian library, offer­ing room after end­less room of visu­al splen­dor, doc­u­men­ta­tion, and inter­pre­ta­tion. It is also easy to make dis­cov­er­ies, to meet peo­ple, stum­ble upon art, hear music, see pho­tographs, learn his­to­ries you would nev­er have encoun­tered if you knew what you were look­ing for and knew exact­ly how to find it. Eliot warned us—and right­ly so—of the dan­gers of infor­ma­tion over­load. But he neglect­ed, in his puri­tan­i­cal way, to describe the plea­sures, the minor epipha­nies, the hap­py chance occur­rences afford­ed us by the ever-expand­ing sea of infor­ma­tion in which we swim. One can learn to nav­i­gate it, one can drift aim­less­ly, and one can, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, feel immense­ly over­whelmed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Archive Makes Avail­able 800,000 Pages Doc­u­ment­ing the His­to­ry of Film, Tele­vi­sion & Radio

Yale Launch­es an Archive of 170,000 Pho­tographs Doc­u­ment­ing the Great Depres­sion

The New York Pub­lic Library Lets You Down­load 180,000 Images in High Res­o­lu­tion: His­toric Pho­tographs, Maps, Let­ters & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (3)
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  • Stiofán Ó Broin says:

    Please add a share to word­press option to your web­site. As such an excel­lent resource for pub­lic domain mate­ri­als, I think it a bit of a shame that I can’t share any more than a title and a link to word­press. If you have a blog pres­ence on word­press, please let me know.

    Keep up the good work and thanks for the excel­lent con­tent.

    Stiofán.

  • MaryJane says:

    I agree that a Word­Press option your site.

    Thank you.

  • Kenneth Hoyt says:

    An amaz­ing resource and as always I’m very grate­ful to your web­site for bring­ing these to light.

    How awe­some!

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