When the World Digital Library goes live today a former US professor’s vision of fostering global understanding by making cultural treasures accessible to a huge audience takes a leap forward.
“This is a way of stimulating people to think about the interaction of cultures,” James Billington, who has headed the US Library of Congress since 1987, said days before the launch of the ambitious online library.
“We hope it will increase international understanding and also increase the curiosity of the world we live in about cultural achievements of humanity. And the beauty of this whole system is that it doesn’t prejudge who it’s for. It’s for everyone,” Billington said.
He pitched the project to global partners when the US rejoined the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2003 after a nearly 20-year absence.
“I suggested that we set up a world digital library and that we do it in all languages of the UN — Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish,” Billington said.
He drew on the positive experiences of the 209-year-old US Library of Congress in digitizing the tens of millions of items it holds.
“Putting together our national digital library taught us that new technology is a wonderful way to get together old cultural and historical primary documents, of which there is very often only one copy, and make them accessible to everyone,” Billington said.
The site that will go live today at www.wdl.org is based on a prototype presented to UNESCO officials at the organization’s Paris headquarters in late 2007.
“If you click on one geographic cluster, such as Europe, you get all the content about Europe,” said Michelle Rago, technical director for the global online reference tool.
“If you’re interested in learning more, you go to an item and get a detailed page,” she said.
Tens of thousands of images and pages of information have been digitized and translated for the site’s debut.
Twenty-six partners in 19 countries, including the national libraries of Egypt, France, Iraq and Mexico, have contributed to the library.
Although that is far from globally representative, the worldwide reference tool will open its virtual doors and card catalogue to the online public in the hope of attracting more partners and funding.
“Everybody’s welcome. This is not a private club. Everybody’s welcome to participate and it’s all free,” Billington said, adding that the Library of Congress did not see itself as the sole motor of the global online library.
“We hope that the site’s relative freedom from many of the political and economic controversies will lead to more funding and partners, so that this becomes a genuinely international project,” he said.
Among the items that visitors will be able to view are Islamic manuscripts from Mali, where book production featuring Arabic script that originated in the eighth and ninth centuries in Iraq has been practiced for nearly a millennium.
Users will be able to delve into the 11th century Tale of Genji, a jewel of Japanese literature that is recognized as one of the oldest novels in the world, or view the first map to mention America, drafted in 1507 by German monk Martin Waldseemueller and on permanent display at the Library of Congress.
The national library of the Philippines has posted the first book ever published in Spanish and Tagalog, and there’s an Aleutian translation of the Bible by a Russian saint.