06. 28. 2010. 22:42

MEK: Hungarian Electronic Library

The Hungarian Electronic Library is well known and gives the impression of being a major service widely used, while it is in fact a small business, the work of a few people and run by only a handful. – Miklós Szentpály interviews the president of this 15-year-old institution.  

In the spring of 1994, a few enthusiastic librarians came forward with a plan for an electronic library, and in early 1995, work started on the central collection of MEK (Magyar Elektronikus Könyvtár, or Hungarian Elecrtonic Library), which grew to about 4000 items between the years of 1996 and 2002, with 60-70 thousand visitors each month. Collection development policies were formed: MEK collects resources concerning Hungary or the Central European region, in the fields of culture, education and academic research. The collection includes text-based resources, maps, sheet music, periodicals and journals, and links to other relevant resources, services and documents concerning libraries.
In 1999 the MEK Department was formed within the National Széchényi Library, initially with a staff of two. The new service was launched on the MEK's own server with an enhanced collection, standard metadata formats and library applications, and the addition of the Electronic Periodicals Archive. Technically it has become a civil movement where anyone, even with the simplest of methods and means can contribute to the development of the collections with digitized works of their own or by other authors, with due respect to copyright issues. During the course of the past few years the Hungarian Electronic Library became one of the most popular and most significant text-archives of the Hungarian webspace.
How was MEK formed, and what gave the starting push?

István Moldován: During the early 90’s me and László Drótos were surfing the web. We met online, which was something of a novelty at the time. Even back then we found a great deal of material, mostly on English-language webpages, and it was striking how all that text just lay about haphazardly, undocumented in any way. Immediately the librarian’s instinct started working away at us, and essentially it was this experience that initiated MEK.

In the last fifteen or twenty years, many other projects had taken on the task of digitalizing texts. There happen to be texts that made their way into the archives of both the Digital Literary Academy (DIA) and MEK. Is this a problem for you?
The DIA concentrates on individual authors, and strives to present their complete life works, so we do not really compete. We have a different profile. Our primary concern is not digitalizing, but collecting and organizing texts and audio materials that have already been released digitally. We don’t want to see the digital heritage go to waste. Of course we also digitalize, but our main focus is on previously digitalized materials.

Where do you get your materials?

For the most part, we search the world of culture, literature, education and science for book type documents. We must also mention the major American archives, where a great deal of Hungary-related and Hungarian-language material is already digitalized. We have incorporated numerous CD releases into the MEK corpus, but these can’t be put on the webpage unaltered, as they have special operational software, so we must first convert them. We also seek out audio books.
Are there limits to digitalization, in either a physical or mental sense?

We have a constantly expanding capacity, the day after tomorrow it will be double what it is today, so that is not a problem. One possible limitation to digitalizing is the documents’ condition, because digitalizing must take place before a certain condition sets in. On the other hand, we lack the funding to develop our technical equipment. We do try to keep as intellectually open as possible. We do get our share of criticism for our main priority of text diversity. 

What are your criteria for text selection?

Mainly we try to make format selections, not content.  For example, we include the works of both official and alternative linguists in our database. We even have materials written in rune script. The Hungarian Electronic Library is well known and gives the impression of being a major service widely used, while it is in fact a small business, the work of a few people and run by only a handful.

 Are you in contact with electronic archives outside of Hungary?
We did have an earlier relation with Project Gutenberg and are trying to pick up on it again. The European Digital Library is also important for us, it is where a good deal of our European cultural heritage is kept, though their Hungarian material is sparse. We are committed to change that significantly and as soon as possible.

What other developments are you planning?

We would like to start a movement within the MEK framework, so we may join the initiative of LibriVox. This is an American project similar to Project Gutenberg, with volunteers uploading the materials, but their focus is on audio books and not texts. We have contacted them and are forming a cooperation, mainly because this webpage has hardly any Hungarian texts so far. We plan to launch a free programme where anyone with a standard microphone can make their own audio book. We’re still working on the concept; quality control, text formatting and filtering are still in a developmental phase.

What other goals does MEK have, besides preserving the digital heritage? How could all that text be put to good use?

Since the dawn of e-books, these texts have gained significance, and we have been approached by many publishers. Our texts were used by the Magyar Szókincstár dictionary as an aid to linguistic and stylistic analyses. But our primary aim remains to make the basic texts of classical learning available to people, young people in particular.

Miklós Szentpály

Tags: MEK