Posted on Monday April 20, 2015

Finding The Keys to Collections

Europeana has a wealth of content available to researchers, both through its portal and its APIs. Europeana Research highlights this content and its research potential.

Search Term: ‘Ruckers’
Source: Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek, Cité de la musique, The European Library
Licence for Metadata: CC0
Licence for Content: Mainly Free access - no re-use and CC BY-NC-SA
Data Format: Image, Text, Sound, Video
Metadata Format: EDM (Europeana Data Model)
How Accessed: Europeana Portal

How does a researcher begin to build information on a collection which never existed in the real world, or at best has become physically dispersed around the globe? Start with Europeana!

My interest lies in the harpsichord and the clavichord — two of the most important types of stringed keyboard instruments used from the 15th through the 18th centuries. During that time the Ruckers family, based in Antwerp, was as important to the harpsichord as Stradivarius was to the violin, contributing immeasurably to the technical development of the instrument. Despite this, only a very small number of Ruckers harpsichords are part of public collections around the world. For the researcher, this presents many obstacles to gathering information on these unique instruments.
Single-manual harpsichord

Single-manual harpsichord., University of Edinburgh, provided by MIMO - Musical Instrument Museums Online, Rights: CC BY-NC-SA.

As with virtually all musical instruments, Ruckers’ harpsichords were never intended to be part of a collection but were individually produced by the instrument maker and then sold to buyers. It was only later, as their historical importance was recognised, that they became part of a collection, either by the private collector or museums. Museum collections inform and provide essential points of reference for researchers seeking to explore the development of these instruments but, until recently, even beginning a study would have involved visits to multiple museum websites.

While not yet definitive, Europeana offers a key to the collections of Ruckers harpsichords in the public domain by gathering information on them in one place. It is a gateway to the instruments held in many of Europe’s most important cultural institutions, which greatly assists the research process.

A search for Ruckers harpsichords in Europeana provides multiple images of the instruments and supporting contextual material such as sheet music, images and audio files. Numbering some 400 items gathered from more than 16 European countries, these datasets cover the amazingly long time span of 6 centuries, from 1583 to 2007.

Moreover, individual links lead the researcher directly to detailed technical and authoritative specifications. These are details such as measurements, materials and inscriptions, provided not by an anonymous source (as would be the case in Wikipedia, for instance) but by the holding museum. For comparative study in particular, this offers the researcher rapid access to information that would previously have required research into the collections of individual museums.

The detailed and traceable information provided by Europeana is far more valuable than that provided by, for example, a Google search, which which yields multiple results but without the means to view individual instruments or, perhaps more importantly, to group them together on a single page.

As Europeana continues to build its contributing group of museums, libraries and archives, its resources will grow in scale and become increasingly valuable. Thus, in the virtual world, it may eventually be possible that all the harpsichords produced and sold by Ruckers (and which had never previously existed together) would come back into a single collection.