A virtual tour in the Hungarian Electronic Library

"The library of the Future, the future of the Library"

László Drótos


Abstract: The Hungarian Electronic Library (abbr. MEK) is the largest collection of Hungary-related digital documents on the Internet and offers all kinds of literature: from short poems to multi-volume lexicons. This paper presents the library, its history and services, and describes some other activities associated with the MEK Department of the National Széchényi Library.

If you type the www.elib.hu or the mek.oszk.hu address[1] into your browser, you will enter the gates of the oldest and largest e-library of Hungary. There are thousands of documents, ten thousands of works behind the orange-hued homepage awaiting their readers: scientific publications, novels, plays and poems from classic and contemporary writers, lexicons and dictionaries, textbooks for students and cookbooks for gourmets, even audio books for those who prefer listening to reading. And the links on the right side lead further to other useful resources where you can browse collections of e-journals and digital pictures, or may ask for help from an online reference service, or jump to other Hungarian or European traditional and digital libraries. Thus besides containing a huge volume of interesting reading material, the Hungarian Electronic Library (abbreviated in Hungarian as "MEK") is a good starting point for those who appreciate written culture. It is not surprising that this is the most popular library-related Hungarian website: Internet-users from different countries visit it about 50.000 times a day.

Let's take a look behind the walls of the MEK, and see how it is organised, what can this site offer for you?

The English homepage

The story began back in 1994, when a couple of librarians decided to collect and organise the electronic publications found on the slowly spreading Hungarian Internet. In the beginning the collection consisted of only a few digital texts, but later on it started to grow rapidly. The earlier versions of the e-library were hosted by the Information Infrastructure Development Program[2] first as a gopher- and then as a www-server. Since 1999 the MEK Project is maintained by the National Library[3] and a small but separate department has been set up which is responsible for the development of the collection behind the renewed homepage and for other related projects and services.

The main goal of the Hungarian Electronic Library is the digital preservation, i.e. to maintain a catalogue and a long-term archive of documents already existing in some kind of computerised format. In accordance with its mission statement the library collects the Hungarian or Hungary-related, typically textual documents from other websites; converts important handbooks published earlier on CD-ROMs to online formats; and accepts proofread and ready-for-press documents or "manuscript" files as voluntary deposits from publishers and authors. Beside these sources some digitising activities are also take place at the MEK: first of all there is a certain circle of volunteers scanning classical literature (just like in the American-born Project Gutenberg), and on the other hand the digitising of the Core Library of Hungarian Studies[4] started a few years ago and the digital facsimiles of the National Library's rare treasures also appear in the MEK (so in this regard it resembles those well-planned digital collections like the French Gallica).

The Pharaoh by Bolesław Prus

The range of selection is very wide; it encompasses almost all kinds of scientific, educational and fictional literature. Unsurprisingly, most of the books are works of Hungarian authors written in Hungarian, but you can find translated classics of the world literature (among them novels of Polish authors, e.g. Prus, Sienkiewicz, Reymont), and works of Hungarian writers translated into foreign languages (e.g. Polish translations of Bálint Balassi's poems, or the history of Transylvania in English, German and French languages). According to the hits registered by the web-server the most popular books are the compulsory reading for students, dictionaries and handbooks such as the Pallas' Great Lexicon, the Hungarian Biographical Lexicon (1000-1990) or the Hungarian Lexicon of Ethnology (in five volumes). Some documents are available in searchable database form; one of them is the Bibliographia Hungarica[5], a huge collection of bibliographic data regarding the works of Hungarian literature translated and published in foreign languages.

Bálint Balassi's poems

The digital books are uploaded into the library after a thorough check, usually in various formats, so the users can select the most suitable version for online browsing (HTML) or downloading (ZIP), for printing (PDF) or further editing (RTF), for mobile devices (LIT) or long term preservation (XML). Moreover, almost 900 works of fine literature can be listened to online with a special text-to-speech software, and there are also 144 human-read audiobooks available in MP3 format.[6] The various formats are available from the "cover pages" of the books, as well as the documents' metadata in catalogue card, MARC and XML Dublin Core formats. Beside these you can read a review of the book, submit your own comments, or check out the links under the "Kapcsolódó oldalak" ("Related pages") menu leading to other similar digital books or web-pages.

There are several searching or browsing facilities to find relevant books. You can search by author, words of the title, subject/keyword and language on the English homepage. The words can be typed in without the special Hungarian accent signs; moreover it is enough to type only a few characters, because - thanks to the automatic truncation - the software finds the inflected forms and compound words, too. However, there are only Hungarian keywords so you have to know the language to some degree for searching by subject. Otherwise just choose one of the five main topics on the left side of the homepage (Natural Sciences, Technology/Economics, Social Sciences, Culture/Arts/Literature, Reference/Miscellaneous), then select one or more subtopics within. You can also search the full text of the HTML documents, certainly each in its own language. There are other possibilities on the Hungarian user interface (mek.oszk.hu): a full featured OPAC with all of the important fields of data, a full-text search form with advanced options and with an embedded Google module, a list of new books, a top-list, and a full list sorted by author. And don't forget: if you find an interesting book in the collection, you will get a hit list of similar items by clicking on the author's name or one of the keywords on the "cover page". And last but not least: you can follow the growth of the collection by subscribing to the RSS channel or to the monthly newsletter.[7]

The collection of the Hungarian Electronic Library is searchable not only on its own homepage, but from other catalogues as well via OAI and Z39.50 protocols. Therefore the digital books can be found in the largest national library-resources and books-databases,[8] and in the Europeana catalogue too, which is the prototype of the planned European Digital Library and it has been opened in March 2007 with the participation of the French, Portugal and Hungarian national libraries. The MEK's metadata are also uploaded into The European Library, the union catalogue of 47 national libraries.[9]

A virtual exhibition

Several spectacular virtual exhibitions are also available from the website of the MEK besides the basically non-illustrated textual works, such as "The Tragedy of Man" by Imre Madách reflected in illustrations and translations. The bilingual (Hungarian and English) exhibition not only shows the illustrations of the printed editions and the scenery of the live performances of the work, but contains links to the translated texts of the most widely-known Hungarian dramatic play in 20 different languages. Another interesting collection is the "Képidő" ("ImageTime") database with thousands of pictures - paintings, drawings, photos, maps and other images - illustrating the history of Hungary.[10] A very special site, but unfortunately also available only in Hungarian, is the "Jeles Napok" ("Notable Days") educational multimedia compilation about the festivities, celebrations and folk customs related to memorable days and anniversaries, with a lot of textual quotations, pictures, animations and sounds.[11] This homepage has been developed by the Neumann House, the owner of the other large Hungarian digital library, but in 2007 its maintenance duties were transferred to the MEK Department, together with other parts of its collection.

The homepage of the "Jeles Napok"

The Electronic Periodicals Archive and Database (abbr. EPA) is another service maintained by the MEK Department. Its homepage at the epa.oszk.hu address is very similar to the MEK's, but instead of monographic documents it catalogues and selectively archives e-periodicals. The coverage of the registry extends from scientific journals to newspapers and weeklies, magazines, news portals, newsletters, lately even important blogs. Now there are more than 1.200 periodical publications catalogued in the database, and cca. 160 of them are archived on the EPA server. The archiving and the retrieving is done by the issue, but some of the publications are searchable on article-level as well. Besides the current periodicals you can find such famous old publications in the collection like the 34 year-volumes "Nyugat" ("West"), the definitive cultural-literary journal in the first half of the 20th century; or the "Vasárnapi Ujság" ("Sunday News"), a popular weekly launched in the middle of the 19th century. Recently a separate site[12] has been set up for presenting the oldest periodicals, where, among others you can get acquainted with the first Hungarian newspaper, named "Mercurius Veridicus ex Hungaria" and published during the Rákóczi's War for Independence. The new homepage of the EPA with accessible design and an English interface opened recently under the efolyoirat.oszk.hu domain name.

The new homepage of the Electronic Periodicals Archive and Database

Another initiative of the MEK was an online reference service which is a separate site by now and is called Libinfo.[13] Here you can get help or information free of charge from the experts working in various Hungarian libraries. If you have any questions regarding Hungary, the Hungarian culture or science, don't hesitate to ask the Libinfo's librarians (you can write in English or in German as well), the answer will arrive by e-mail within two days. E-library or e-document related questions can be sent directly to the info@mek.oszk.hu mailbox of the MEK.

The MEK works actively on distributing the digital preservation technology in Hungary. With the support of a public benefit association[14] two software tools have been developed in the past years: a generator of Dublin Core metadata, and a complete metadata management system called "eleMEK", which is freely available under a GNU licence for other digital collections.[15] The translations of various guidelines and the events organised under the framework of the Minerva Plus (the digitisation initiative of the European Union) also serve to spread the know-how and the best practices of producing and preserving digital documents. The Hungarian homepage of the Minerva Plus is hosted on the mek.oszk.hu server.[16]

In the year 2008 two major projects are going to be launched by the MEK Department: the first is a standardised collection of digital images, the second is the pilot version of the Hungarian Internet Archive (in co-operation with the NIIF and the National Library), which will archive the whole content of the most important Hungarian websites.

Hopefully this short tour was enough for those who are interested in the Hungarian language and culture to get curious and pay a visit to the homepage of the MEK and the related information sources available from there. Also, hopefully it proved convincingly that the staff members of the Hungarian Electronic Library take seriously their motto chosen at the dawn of the digital age: "The library of the Future, the future of the Library".

A 3D representation of the virtual library of MEK


[1] The former address is the English interface, the latter is the more sophisticated Hungarian homepage (but with English tooltips over the links)

[2] The organisation behind the HBONE academic network of Hungary: www.niif.hu

[3] National Széchényi Library: www.oszk.hu

[4] A list of about 3.800 books: the basic works of the Hungarian culture and Hungarology: mek.oszk.hu/hungalap/indexeng.html

[5] Bibliographia Hungarica: demeter.oszk.hu

[6] The Electronic Library is very popular among the visually impaired; there is a special, accessible interface for them: vmek.oszk.hu

[7] MEK RSS: mek.oszk.hu/mek2.rss, MEK newsletter: mek.oszk.hu/mailman/listinfo/mekhirek

[8] E.g.: opac.oszk.hu, www.mokka.hu, www.nda.hu

[9] Europeana.: www.europeana.eu , The European Library: www.theeuropeanlibrary.org

[10] Képidő (ImageTime): www.kepido.oszk.hu

[11] Jeles Napok (Notable Days): jelesnapok.neumann-haz.hu

[12] Sajtómúzeum (Press History): sajtomuzeum.oszk.hu

[13] Libinfo (online reference service): libinfo.oszk.hu

[14] Association for the Hungarian Electronic Library: mek.oszk.hu/egyesulet

[15] Dublin Core generator: mek.oszk.hu/dc, eleMEK homepage: elemek.oszk.hu

[16] Minerva Plus Hungary: mek.oszk.hu/minerva