We are OPEN! Share and reuse our public domain collections (and read about how we got there)

Here’s a piece of exciting news: KU Leuven Libraries has adopted an open data policy for its digitised collections! This means that nearly 42.000 digital representations of originals from the library’s public domain holdings may be freely shared and (re-)used by all. And of course this number continues to grow.

How it works?

It’s easy. Online visitors can check the copyright status of the images when viewing digitised collection items online. A direct link guides them to our terms of use page, where they will read that everyone is free to use and reuse images offered as open data at will, mentioning KU Leuven as the owner of the collection item where possible.

The IE viewer displays copyright status information and links to the general terms and conditions.

The information pane of the IIIF-based Mirador viewer displays the same copyright status information and link to the general terms and conditions as the IE viewer

While we strive to keep our collections as open as possible, some items are available under a license, e.g. when the public domain originals are not part of KU Leuven Libraries’ holdings or when permission was given for copyrighted materials to be digitized and made available to the public under specific conditions. Visitors can consult the licensing conditions via the viewer.

When images are made available under a licence, the viewers (here: Mirador) link to specific conditions for use for the digital object in view.

Having checked the status of a digital object and the conditions for use, online visitors can use the direct download possibilities included in the Teneo viewer. These offer single-file or full-object download.

Images may be downloaded as single files or as full object in the IE viewer.

The downloaded images are jpg or jp2 and allow perfect readability of even the smallest written text. Visitors are now ready to become active users of the digitised collection!

How we got there

Easy as it may seem, implementing an open data policy required significant effort on various levels to ensure that online visitors would be clearly informed about the judicial status of both physical originals and the digital representation and what this means for its use. KU Leuven Libraries currently presents its digitised collections either in the Rosetta IE viewer (with an ‘Intellectual Entity’ generally equalling an individual collection item) or – for bespoke collections – in a IIIF-based Mirador viewer. Systems and processes had to be adjusted to show this information on an single-item level in these view environments.

First, data can only be freely used and shared if it can be both accessed and acquired. To this end, easy-to-use download functions were first created within the IE viewer. This viewer now offers both single-file or full-object download (see the images above). Mirador too will include download options before long.

Second, covering the bases, our team collected the rights information from legacy project descriptions and agreements, both internal to KU Leuven Libraries and (for digital objects based on original held by other institutions) with external partners. Unclear phrasing was clarified and the images resulting from digitisation projects were assigned one of three possible legal statuses: public domain/open data, available under a license, or copyrighted.

Third, for each of these three statuses, terms & conditions for use of the digital objects were designed in close collaboration with KU Leuven’s Legal Department. Furthermore, an overview page was created detailing, for each of the digitisation projects, the licensing conditions for those digitized items that are available under a license.

Fourth, a copyright status was assigned to each of the individual digitised objects, more specifically to both the physical (public domain or in copyright) and digital (content as open data, under a license or in copyright) objects. For the originals, the descriptive metadata model was modified to include the copyright status; for the digital objects, status information would become part of the metadata in the information package presented for ingest into the preservation environment.

Terms and conditions for the use of images as open data.

And finally: fifth, we turned to metadata visualisation in the viewer environments. The metadata shown in both the IE and the Mirador viewer is not that of the public search environment Limo nor from the metadata repository Alma, but rather from the digital asset preservation system, Rosetta; hence the choice to include the copyright status of the digital representations in the ingest information packages. By nature, the metadata (just like any data) in the preservation system is unchangeable. Including the extra information for those digital objects already in Rosetta was not something to be done lightly, but implementing an open data policy justified the decision.

Rather than adding copyright statuses to the existing metadata, we decided to create a standard mapping between Alma and Rosetta and replace the existing descriptive metadata in Rosetta. That way, two other issues could be addressed: the inconsistent and the static nature of the descriptive information shown in the digital representation viewers. The inconsistency was a legacy of the early digitisation projects at KU Leuven Libraries (with some projects generating extensive descriptions and others hardly any) while the static nature of the metadata is inherent to its extraction from the preservation environment.

This chart shows the four main elements of our architecture and the flow of data between them. While the viewer (both IE and Mirador) is accessed via a link in Limo, the actual images and metadata shown is retrieved from Rosetta.

The new standard mapping between Alma and Rosetta provides a direct answer to the first issue. The viewers display a uniform metadata set consisting of title, material type, genre, location of the original item and copyright status information. A link to the full descriptive record in Limo gives users access to the most up-to-date information about the digital item on view. And of course both viewers’ metadata panes display all the object-level information required to implement an open data policy. Together with the download functions, this enables KU Leuven Libraries to offer its digitised collections as open data.

The road to ‘open’

KU Leuven Libraries is fully committed to opening up its digitised collections in depth and to as high a standard as possible. Presenting the images of ca. 42.000 – out of nearly 95.000 – digitised library collection items as open data is an important first step in this direction. While we promise to keep improving the user experience in the viewers, with enhanced download functionalities and easier access to terms of use and licensing conditions, you will hear about our first endeavours into opening up metadata as freely available data sets in a next blogpost.

Meanwhile, we invite everyone to visit the collections at Digital Heritage Online (read all about DHO in a previous blog post) and to actively use, reuse and share our digitised collections!

Digital Heritage Online: KU Leuven Libraries implements its new discovery platform

KU Leuven Libraries presents a new platform: Digital Heritage Online. It gathers all digitized heritage objects from its collections, with objects dating from the 9th up to the 20th century, in one viewing interface. The platform enables users to browse these digitized objects in an open and visually appealing way. It also provides a search environment within the Digital Heritage Online collection.

The user may browse the collections and items based on either content theme, material type, or location of the physical object. A fourth entry shows which objects were made digitally available during the previous three months.

Start window of Digital Heritage Online platform with four entries to discover the database.

By clicking on an object thumbnail within the collection, the user can consult the extended bibliographic information in the library catalogue and view the full object online.

Catalogue item description with ‘Teneo’ link to view the full object and detailed bibliographic information.

Additionally,  the extended object description names all collections to which the object belongs and shows other related items. This allows for contextualized browsing of the digitized collection in the library catalogue environment.

Catalogue item description with ‘Collection path’ showing the collections to which a single item belongs as well as thumbnails of related collection items, two features supporting contextualised browsing.

One can also execute specific searches within the Digital Heritage Online collection, excluding non-digitized collection items in the search results. Searches may be performed either in Digital Heritage Online as a whole or within its subcollections. Searches via the blue search button will include items in collections outside of the Digital Heritage Online platform.

Search results for ‘Leuven’ in the Digital Heritage Online collection, employing the search box on the left.

Digital Heritage Online may be accessed either directly via this link or through the homepage of KU Leuven Libraries’ integrated search interface and catalogue: Limo, by clicking on ‘Curated Collections’.

Limo homepage view with access to Digital Heritage Online as one of the ‘curated collections’.

Over the past ten years, KU Leuven Libraries has intensively worked on digitizing its documentary heritage. At the time of writing this blog post, the digitized collection held almost 88.000 objects and it is continuously expanding week by week.

Since 2016, we have focused our attention on opening up our digitized collection in a clearer and more user-friendly way. While we keep in mind the FAIR principles as a long-term goal, the most pressing needs were increasing the findability and accessibility of the collection. Parts of the collection were already available through aggregator platforms such as Europeana and Flandrica or KU Leuven platforms such as Magister Dixit and Lovaniensia. A selection of heritage objects figure in virtual exhibitions on our EXPO site. And whenever copyright and intellectual property rights allow consultation and use, digitized collection items can be consulted through Limo, the library’s integrated search interface mentioned above, where users can search the full library catalogue and view items that have a digital representation online.

The Digital Heritage Online platform now provides a clear access point and a search environment for our digitized heritage. It enables a unified view on all digitized content and a true visual browsing environment. It is, naturally, only a first step into opening up the digitized collection. Opening up the data itself (images, metadata and content) for use and reuse is firmly positioned on our agenda. But for now: happy exploring!


Digital Heritage Online is the result of a close collaboration between different services of KU Leuven Libraries. LIBIS took care of the design and technical development of the Collection Discovery platform in KU Leuven Libraries’ catalogue and search interface. Digital Heritage Online was the pilot project for this new Limo implementation. Together with the various collection curators and thanks to the many digitisation projects, the Digitisation Department designed a structure for the various sub-collections. Technical operations for bringing together the many heritage object descriptions in the correct Alma collections were carried out in collaboration with the Document Processing Department. The content coordination of Digital Heritage Online is in the hands of the Digitisation Department.

Large-scale high-end digitisation? Workflow optimisation!


Ex-libris of Archibald Corble Harrison in KU Leuven, BTAB, R4A1

Shortly after the 1940 burning of the Leuven University Library, the fencer and bibliophile Archibald Corble Harrison (1883-1944) donated his extensive collection of books on fencing to the University. The books and manuscripts of this collection, held by the KU Leuven Special Collections, are now the subject of a large-scale digitisation project.

The project is vast: with c. 1.900 items dating from as early as the 15th century to the 20th century, the Corble collection is one of the largest collections on swordmanship and related fields in the world. Continue reading

Magister Dixit: KU Leuven and UCL collections completed

Magister Dixit projectThe Imaging Lab recently completed the digitisation of 301 manuscripts with lecture notes of the ancient University of Louvain. Digitisation took place as part of the Magister Dixit project, for Lectio, and with support of the InBev-Baillet Latour Fund. Lecture notes have naturally been scattered all over Europe but both KU Leuven and the UCL built up extensive collections after the destruction of the library during World War II in which 68 manuscripts were lost. The recently gathered collection is now virtually reunited. Continue reading