Fast routes into the European data mountain

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The Independent Online
IN A room just north of the City of London, 20 people are pondering what the European Commission is doing to harmonise garden gnome design.

The answer, of course, is nothing at all. Nevertheless the question - raised sarcastically by a Tory MEP but now formally recorded in the reports of the European Parliament - provided a moment of levity for the participants of a two-day course on European information sources held recently by the librarians' association, Aslib.

If there are, perhaps, not enough good jokes emerging from Brussels, there is clearly a Euro-mountain of information available from the European Union's institutions. The problem is finding what you need.

Grace Hudson of the University of Bradford, one of the tutors on the Aslib course, accepts that the variety of information can be bewildering. Not many organisations want to subscribe to the EU's voluminous Official Journal.

However, the EU has also created a series of on-line databases that can be interrogated electronically (and sometimes free) using key-word searching. A number of companies have taken this raw data and turned it into CD-ROM format.

The key database is Celex (Communitatis Europeae Lex), comprising the full text of the European Union treaties, directives and case-law, as well as details of European Parliament questions and member-state legislation. Other databases include Rapid (European press releases and key speeches), Cordis (a guide to research and development projects) and Info92 ('accessible information on the single market', according to Ms Hudson). The DTI's Spearhead database also provides single-market information. Then there's TED, short for Tenders Electronic Daily, the vast database of EU-wide public contracts up for tender.

Confusingly, the EU's databases (there are about 40) are split between two computer host systems, the commercial Eurobases and the more community-orientated Echo, to which access is usually free.

Language is also an issue. The European Union has nine official languages, but sometimes the Euro version of English can seem a language of its own. 'You have to remember, for example, that lamb and mutton are called 'sheep meat',' Ms Hudson says.

Faced with these barriers, many would-be business users choose to use information professionals to access the data they require. However, even here the situation is confused by the existence of two parallel networks. Euro Info Centres were set up specially for small and medium-sized businesses and are typically linked to chambers of commerce, while the European Documentation Centres are usually based at universities. Although business users are expected to use their nearest EIC (there are 23 in Britain, run on a income-generating basis), there is free public access to the 44 European Documentation Centres in the UK, which can therefore be a better option for basic fact-finding.

'It's confusing to the outsider and, at the moment, a bit hit-and-miss,' says Catherine Webb of the European Information Association, a forum for information professionals. She adds that her association (061- 228 691) can direct inquirers to their nearest advice centre.

Moves are also under way to provide public libraries with better information from Europe. Librarians will be meeting to discuss the issue later this month in Manchester, where the city council has already established a Europe unit in its central reference library.