World Digital Library: All countries invited aboard

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Now that the World Digital Library has been launched on the Internet, its creators want to add new partners and content from every country in the world.

Inaugurated April 21 at the headquarters of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Paris, the World Digital Library (WDL) includes about 1,200 documents from more than two dozen libraries and institutions in 19 countries. The response on launch day was “tremendous,” says John Van Oudenaren of the U.S. Library of Congress. “We had over 7 million page views, 615,000 unique viewers. We had people [accessing the site] from every country in the world.”

A collaborative project of the Library of Congress, UNESCO and more than 30 global partners, the WDL focuses on significant primary materials such as manuscripts, maps, rare books, sound recordings, films, prints, photographs and architectural drawings, all in their original languages. The site’s interface — including its search functions and explanatory material — is in seven languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Russian.

“One of the big challenges for the future,” Van Oudenaren said, “is to add new partners so that we have some partners from every country in the world, and also to add content.”

Getting everyone aboard

He said that in advance of the launch, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington wrote to “every national librarian and every national archivist in the world” informing them about the project and inviting them to discuss partnerships, and UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura did the same in letters to cultural ministers in every UNESCO country.

“The only way we’re going to turn it into a genuine world digital library is to get everybody aboard,” Van Oudenaren, senior adviser for the WDL at the Library of Congress, told April 27.

Earlier, he held a digital video conference with information resource professionals at the INFOS 2009 conference in Bratislava, Slovakia. The University Library in Bratislava, a WDL partner, contributed items from the Bašagić Collection of Islamic Manuscripts. That collection is included on the UNESCO Memory of the World register, which seeks to preserve valuable archive holdings throughout the world.

“There are a number of UNESCO Memory of the World items on the World Digital Library,” Van Oudenaren said, “and that’s the kind of material — special, unique, important cultural material — that we want to be focusing on as we move forward.”

While the WDL includes rare books, “this is not a mass book-digitization project,” Van Oudenaren said. The books complement other cultural content or are cultural artifacts themselves. Some examples are the first known South American imprint, Pragmatica, a four-page edict issued by King Philip II of Spain in 1584; the Devil’s Bible (Codex Gigas), created in the early 13th century in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic); and the first printed edition of the classic Japanese work Genji monogatari (Tale of Genji), 1596–1615.

“We’re hoping that [the WDL] increases the amount of non-English and international content on the Internet,” Van Oudenaren said. “We wanted to make sure we had a good representation from all the different cultures and not just Western culture.” One of the main goals of the project is to promote better understanding between cultures, its creators have emphasized.

The WDL also aims to help bridge the digital divide by helping developing countries acquire the technical capability to digitize their cultural and historical collections, Van Oudenaren said.

Reaching out to young people

Because the World Digital Library is intended as an educational resource, especially for students and other young people, it has been designed to appeal to computer-savvy users. “We did a lot of work in optimizing speed and functionality,” Van Oudenaren said. “Young people are conditioned by fast, highly functional commercial sites. … They don’t want to click on something and wait for five minutes while it shows up.”

Additionally, young people “don’t just want to be passive viewers of Web sites, they want to share things with their friends, and so we’ve provided those options,” he said. Every document on the WDL has a link with “no fewer than 46 different options — everything from simple printing and downloading to Twittering, Facebooking and so on — to let you share it with your friends.”

“If you want to be relevant and you want to do some good in terms of helping people understand each other better, you’ve got to reach out to young people,” Van Oudenaren said. “We’ll be listening to what people have to say about what they like, what they don’t like, and we’ll be continuing to improve and adding features,” he continued.

The World Digital Library Web site was developed by the Library of Congress, with some technical assistance on Arabic search and other issues from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, Van Oudenaren said. Partners contribute content, share technology or provide other services.

Funding comes from private sources, including Google Inc., the Qatar Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, Microsoft Inc., the Lawrence and Mary Anne Tucker Foundation and the Bridging Nations Foundation.

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