About Menu

World Digital Library - Speeches, Statements

James H. Billington
The Librarian of Congress
Remarks to the Plenary Session
The U.S. National Commission for UNESCO
Georgetown University
June 6, 2005

Digitized, instant communication is the great technological revolution of our times. It has streamlined business and shopping and delivered more information more quickly to more people than ever before. It has accelerated both basic and applied research in the natural sciences. Scientists have long created virtual communities that share data and ideas in important fields like medicine and the environment. Both the problems and the researchers who work on them are widely scattered around the world, but they now come together in a common focus on the World Wide Web.

We need to acknowledge from the outset, however, that no new technology will by itself bring the world peace, harmony or justice—let alone transform the intractable orneriness of human nature.

The invention of the printing press with movable type fanned religious wars in the 16th century. The onset of telegraphy, photography, and the power-driven printing press in the 19th century created mass journalism that fulminated nationalistic passions and world wars in the 20th century. The arrival in the late 20th century of instantaneous, networked, global communication may well have facilitated the targeted propaganda, recruitment, and two-way communication of transnational terrorist organizations more than it has helped combat them.

We are now discovering—painfully and much too slowly—that deep conflict between cultures is in many ways being fired up rather than cooled down by this revolution in communications, as was the case in the 16th and 19th centuries. Whenever new technology suddenly brings different peoples closer together and makes them aware of certain commonalities, it seems simultaneously to create a compensatory psychological need for the different peoples to define—and even assert aggressively—what is unique and distinctive about their own historic cultures.

These realities and America's rejoining of UNESCO embolden me to suggest that the time may be right for our country's delegation to consider introducing to the world body a proposal for the cooperative building of a World Digital Library. This would be a new type of activity that could give UNESCO a fresh start and provide win-win opportunities for everybody. It 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.

Let me briefly suggest some outlines of what such a World Digital Library might look like. These are suggested by our 15-year experience with digital activity at the Library of Congress and by a gathering body of experience and projected activities in other institutions both here and abroad.

The Library of Congress began its free, online digital library with a collection of Americana that we called American Memory. It was designed to help educators provide deeper historical understanding and more stimulating learning experiences for their students in primary and secondary schools. With funding from both private and public sources, we now provide some 10 million one-of-a-kind primary documents of American history and culture from our own collections: the manuscript papers of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln; the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady; the earliest movies made by Thomas Edison; and a raft of historic maps, cartoons, and other items that can be zoomed in on and downloaded free of charge where there is access to the Internet.

We have brought into our American Memory Web site material from 33 other American repositories, and in the last five years, we have gone international. Recognizing that the Congress's library is a world resource with more than 60 percent of our print holdings in languages other than English, we have launched bilingual digitization projects to blend primary documents from our collections with those from the national libraries of six other countries. We call these projects Global Gateways; and with Russia and Brazil they have so far been focused (1) on comparisons with the American experience as a continent-sized, frontier nation; and (2) with Spain, France and the Netherlands on their respective roles in the Americas during the colonial era. These sites are not just for us; they are being used in Barcelona as well as Boston; Moscow, Amsterdam and Sao Paulo as well as Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles. This growing virtual library seems to appeal to all ages. It is the crown jewel in the Library of Congress's multiform Web presence that last year fielded 3.4 billion electronic transactions from all over the world.

Our recent agreement with the National Library of Egypt opens up the prospect of moving toward a more ambitious and inclusive World Digital Library that would seek to create for other cultures, languages, and nations the documentary record of their distinctive cultural achievements and aspirations—rather as we have tried to do for our own country with the ongoing American Memory project of putting primary culture and history documents online.

Such a project could begin—but need not end—with multinational efforts through UNESCO to begin digitizing online “Memory” projects for three great cultures each of which lies beyond Europe and involves more than one billion people: Chinese East Asia, Indian South Asia, and the worlds of Islam stretching from Indonesia through Central and West Asia to Africa.

Such online, cultural projects would have to be created primarily with and by the people of the respective regions—and should in no way preclude the parallel development of similar or different projects in other parts of the world's cultural mosaic. But because the Internet is by definition international and because the primary documents of culture have a special human appeal that transcends politics, there is an enormous potential for increasing transcultural understanding both through the dialogue that scholars and curators will have in putting the memory packages together and through the impact they can have on the thinking of globally curious and multimedially oriented young people everywhere.

There are many different ways to structure and develop a World Digital Library for intercultural understanding. And there is already a great deal of material to work with that has been or is scheduled to be put online by other repositories both here and abroad. Research libraries in the United States have described more than 600 public access collections in the list of digital resources maintained by the Digital Library Federation. The university libraries of Cornell and Michigan have pioneered in putting on line primary materials in American social history; and those of Chicago, Southern California and Minnesota have all put online materials dealing with India—just to cite a few of many examples. The Royal Dutch Library already provides a “Memory” of the Netherlands project online; and the British Library and National Diet Library of Japan have both posted extensive materials from their own rich national cultures—as have a number of other libraries, archives, museums and other artistic and scientific institutions whose activities in this area would require yet another inventory.

The purpose of creating a special World Digital Library would be to attempt to provide a minimal, dependable online encyclopedia of the world's most important two-dimensional cultural objects—just as UNESCO has created an inventory of the world's most important three-dimensional historical monuments. It will be more difficult to reach agreement on what materials should be included in the online inventory of culture and in the explanatory material appended to it; but by adding these two-dimensional cultural icons there is great potential for improving international understanding.

A final, more recent commission that the Congress has given to the Library of Congress may help solve two key problems facing any attempt to integrate such a huge and diverse volume of material into a shared international enterprise. Congress has mandated us to coordinate, plan and begin implementing a distributed national program for archiving the Internet. The Library of Congress and eight consortia involving 36 other American institutions, are well along in figuring out what to save from, and how to preserve the vast flood of ephemeral and unfiltered material on the World Wide Web. The Library of Congress has already harvested 26 terabytes of these evanescent Web sites; and our initial partners are expected to gather in 60 terabytes of “at-risk” digital content.

Most important for the possibility of building a World Digital Library, we are working with all the stakeholder communities on finding answers to two crucial and still unsolved questions: (1) how to strike the proper balance between protecting copyright and maximizing accessibility on the Internet; and (2) how to create metadata (the online equivalent of cataloging) and the interoperability that can create a unified and usable online library that is multimedial and transcultural. If we can solve these problems reasonably well at the national level, we should have a better chance of dealing with them internationally.

We have found that online exposure to primary cultural materials creates an interactive, searching experience that raises questions that can lead people back to reading in search of answers—rather than away from it, as the essentially passive experience of watching television generally does.

Libraries almost everywhere have by now fairly seamlessly integrated online with on shelf materials. In so doing, libraries are exemplifying the general truth that new technologies usually end up supplementing rather than supplanting old ones. Movies did not supplant plays, nor did television obliterate radio. And for the all--important technology of creative thinking, computers can provide untold new quantities of information, while books can keep alive indispensable old qualities of discernment and articulation. By adding without subtracting from the world's knowledge, humanity will have a better chance to pose unimagined questions, to accept unwelcome answers and to ripen knowledge into the kind of practical wisdom that may be necessary for our survival.

Libraries are inherently islands of freedom and antidotes to fanaticism. They are temples of pluralism where books that contradict one another stand peacefully side by side on the shelves just as intellectual antagonists work peacefully next to each other in reading rooms.

It is legitimate and in our nation's interest that the new technology be used internationally by the private sector to promote profitable economic enterprise and by the public sector to promote democratic political institutions. But it is also necessary to have a more active and inclusive foreign cultural policy—and not just in order to blunt charges that we are insensitive cultural imperialists. I believe that we have both an opportunity and an obligation as a nation to form a private/public partnership to use this new technology that we invented to help celebrate the creative cultural variety of the world with which we are increasingly and inextricably interinvolved.

Through a World Digital Library, the rich store of the world's culture that American institutions have preserved could be given back to the world free of charge and in a new form far more universally accessible than ever before. America itself is a world civilization that now uniquely includes in its citizenry significant numbers of people from all parts of the world. A private-public American partnership in sponsoring such a project for UNESCO would dramatize the fact that we are helping people recover distinctive elements of their own cultures through a shared enterprise that also may make it psychologically easier for them to discover that the knowledge and experience of our own and of other free cultures might be of more benefit to their own development than they would otherwise be willing to admit.