The World Digital Library (WDL) offers free online access to important, rare and interesting cultural treasures from around the planet. Starting April 21, a vast multilingual collection of manuscripts, maps, rare books, sound recordings, films, prints, photographs and other cultural and historical materials can be viewed with the click of a computer mouse — and this is only the beginning of an ambitious project to share the contents of the world’s libraries and cultural institutions.
The WDL’s Web site functions in seven major languages, permitting users to conduct searches and read descriptions of the content in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish (the official languages of the United Nations) and Portuguese. All materials are presented in their original languages. For selected items, there are videos featuring discussions by expert curators.
More than two dozen libraries around the globe contributed the 1,200 digitized items from different eras and places that are now available for viewing. Among the treasures are calligraphic works in Arabic, Persian, Chinese and Japanese from the eight to the 19th centuries; early films, by the Lumière brothers in France, 1897–98, and Thomas Edison in the United States, 1899; and Miroslav’s Gospel, a Serbian illuminated manuscript created around 1180.
The World Digital Library was launched April 21 at the headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris —four years after the project was proposed by James Billington, head of the U.S. Library of Congress.
Billington envisioned a Web site that would “bring together in a single place what is most interesting and most important of the world’s varied cultures.”
“The focus of the project is on rare and one-of-a kind cultural items that are locked away in the great libraries of the world: oracle bones from China, ancient woodblock prints from Japan, scientific manuscripts from the Arab world, Columbus’ letter announcing his discoveries in the New World,” he said.
By increasing the quantity and diversity of cultural materials on the Internet — and making them available in the original languages — the World Digital Library aims “to improve international understanding across cultures,” Billington said.
Bridging the digital divide
Both UNESCO and the Library of Congress emphasize that another important goal of the project is to help bridge the digital divide among countries.
Universal access to information and knowledge is a fundamental principal for UNESCO, said Abdul Waheed Khan, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for communication and information.
“There are hundreds of thousands of libraries,” he said. “Once you empower them through the digitization process, then you create almost unlimited opportunities for people to access information and knowledge.”
When a prototype of the WDL was unveiled in 2007, Billington said that “many countries will need to build capacity, both technical and human,” to be able to create and access digital content. “This is part of the challenge and one that we welcome,” he said.
The WDL prototype was developed by the Library of Congress, UNESCO and five other partners — the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of Alexandria, Egypt; the National Library of Brazil; the National Library of Egypt; the National Library of Russia; and the Russian State Library.
Currently, the WDL has 32 partners, including institutions that contributed cultural content, funding or technological or other assistance. It hopes to expand participation to all UNESCO member countries.
When the WDL prototype was unveiled, Rafaat Hilal of the National Library and Archives of Egypt invited participation “especially [by] those in the Middle East and all Arab countries and Africa.” He added that “working together to bring your culture to the people is what the World Digital Library is all about.”
Speaking at the April 21 launch ceremony, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura said the World Digital Library “offers a platform for the free flow of information, for international solidarity, for the celebration of cultural diversity and for the building of inclusive knowledge societies,” and that it highlights “the social and cultural potential of digital technologies.”
Furui Zhan, chief librarian of the National Library of China, a WDL partner, said, “The spirit of equality and open understanding comes into full view with the creation of this World Digital Library,” and he pledged his library’s close cooperation.
Billington called the launch a first step toward building a comprehensive online resource that helps “deepen our understanding of each other.” He particularly encouraged young people to make use of the World Digital Library and “enjoy what is best in traditional culture, using the new media.”