Magazine article Information Outlook

Connecting the World, Responding to User Needs: With Interfaces in Seven Languages and Partner Institutions in More Than 60 Countries, the World Digital Library Hopes to Celebrate the Depth and Uniqueness of Cultures from around the World

Magazine article Information Outlook

Connecting the World, Responding to User Needs: With Interfaces in Seven Languages and Partner Institutions in More Than 60 Countries, the World Digital Library Hopes to Celebrate the Depth and Uniqueness of Cultures from around the World

Article excerpt

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington first proposed the establishment of a World Digital Library in a June 2005 speech at Georgetown University to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO. At the time, the United States was in the process of rejoining UNESCO after a nearly 20-year absence from the organization. Billington proposed a cooperative project, to be undertaken by the Library of Congress and partner libraries from around the world in cooperation with UNESCO, to digitize and make freely available over the Internet primary source documents that tell the stories and highlight the achievements of all countries. Such a project, he argued, would "hold out the promise of bringing people closer together precisely by celebrating the depth and uniqueness of different cultures in a single global undertaking."

The reaction to the proposal was overwhelmingly positive. UNESCO embraced the idea, which it saw as contributing to the achievement of a number of its own objectives--promoting knowledge societies, building capacity to exploit information and communications technology in developing countries, narrowing the digital divide between and within countries, and encouraging multilingualism and increased diversity of cultural content on the Internet. A few months later, Google Inc., owner of the eponymous Internet search engine, contributed $3 million (unrelated to Google BookSearch) to develop a comprehensive plan for a World Digital Library (WDL).

The Library of Congress and UNESCO jointly convened a meeting in December 2006 to solicit input about the proposed project from librarians and technology experts in many countries. Soon after, working groups for technical architecture and content selection were established, as was a best practices working group co-sponsored by the Library of Congress and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA).

At the October 2007 General Conference of UNESCO, the Library of Congress presented a working prototype of the WDL, with content provided by six partner institutions: the National Library of Brazil, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of Egypt, the National Library and Archives of Egypt, the National Library of Russia, the Russian State Library, and the Library of Congress. Following 18 months of intensive planning and development, the World Digital Library (www.wdl.org) was officially launched at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Institutions from 18 countries, including the national libraries of China, Egypt, France, Israel, Japan, Russia, Serbia, and Sweden as well as major university libraries from several nations, contributed digital copies of treasured pieces from their collections to the first public version of the WDL.

Content and Functionality

In keeping with James Billington's vision of a library that "celebrat[es] the depth and uniqueness of different cultures," the WDL is distinguished by the quality and selectivity of its content. Following are just a few of the many resources--each contributed by a WDL partner--that currently are in the WDL:

* 19th century photographs of Brazil from the Theresa Cristina Maria Collection, assembled by Emperor Pedro II of Brazil (National Library of Brazil);

* Manuscripts and printed works spanning the history of China, ranging from a rubbing of an 8th century stele documenting Assyrian teachings in Central Asia to a 19th century makeup album used by actors in the Peking opera (National Library of China);

* Japanese illustrated manuscripts and hand-painted books and scrolls from the 8th through the 20th centuries (National Diet Library);

* Manuscripts of important works by Arab scientists and mathematicians from the 14th through the 19th centuries (National Library and Archives of Egypt);

* Indigenous Mesoamerican pictographic codices from the 11th through the 16th centuries (National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico City, and the Center for the Study of the History of Mexico, Mexico City);

* Miroslav's Gospel, a 12th century liturgical work considered to be the most important and beautiful of Serbian manuscript books (National Library of Serbia);

* Manuscripts of works by the Jewish philosopher and theologian Maimonides, written in the 12th through 14th centuries in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic (National Library of Israel); and

* Martin Waldseemuller's 1507 world map, the first map to depict a separate Western hemisphere (with the Pacific as a separate ocean) and to use the name "America" (Library of Congress). …

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