By GAIL FINEBERG
Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, has proposed the cooperative building of a World Digital Library for the purpose of bringing people closer together "by celebrating the depth and uniqueness of different cultures in a single global undertaking."
In an op-ed piece published by The Washington Post on Nov. 22, he said, "Such a project would be created primarily with and by the people of the respective regions. But because the Internet is by definition international, and because cultural materials have a special human appeal that transcends politics, there is enormous potential for increasing transcultural understanding."
On that same day, Billington and Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google Inc., announced that Google, with a contribution of $3 million, had agreed to become the first company in a public-private partnership to support this effort.
"We are grateful for Google's contribution to this important initiative," the Librarian said, "and we will seek other philanthropic contributors to assist in this important effort to harness technology to bring scattered primary materials of the varied cultures into consolidated Web sites for each culture."
Brin said, "Google supports the World Digital Library because we share a common mission of making the world's information universally accessible and useful. To create a global digital library is a historic opportunity, and we want to help the Library of Congress in this effort."
Billington introduced the concept of a World Digital Library in a speech he gave before the newly established U.S. National Commission for UNESCO on June 6, 2005, at Georgetown University. The full text is available at www.loc.gov/about/welcome/speeches/.
"Working with UNESCO, we want to encourage other countries to make use of our experiences in developing their own digitization projects. I believe that we have both an opportunity and an obligation as a nation to form a public-private partnership to use the new technology of the Internet to help celebrate the creative cultural variety of the world with which we are increasingly and inextricably interinvolved," Billington said in his speech.
He proposed that public research institutions and libraries work with private donors to begin digitizing significant primary cultural materials archived in institutions across the globe. Billington said that the World Digital Library would bring together online "rare and unique cultural materials held in U.S. and Western repositories with those of other great cultures such as those that lie beyond Europe and involve more than 1 billion people: Chinese East Asia, Indian South Asia and the worlds of Islam stretching from Indonesia through Central and West Asia to Africa."
In his speech, Billington noted the Library's experience in building digital libraries, including the Global Gateway projects launched in 2000. As a world resource with more than 60 percent of its print holdings in languages other than English, the Library created the Global Gateway Web site (http://international.loc.gov/intldl/find/digital_collaborations.html) to present international collections of the Library and materials from repositories in Russia, Spain, Brazil, the Netherlands and France. The bilingual, multimedia presentations in Global Gateways concentrate on the historical intersections and parallels between the United States and the site's contributing nations.
Billington said a recent agreement between the Library and 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."
He traced the beginning of the National Digital Library Program to 1994, when the American Memory Web site was initiated to offer many of the nation's historical treasures online. Today, more than 10 million unique materials from the Library and those of its partners are available free of charge in the American Memory Web site (www.loc.gov/memory).
The content of the World Digital Library, like that of American Memory, will be primarily one-of-a-kind materials, including manuscript and multimedia materials of the particular culture.
The Library's experience with large-scale digitization projects includes a number of scanning pilots with a variety of vendors, including Google. The Library and Google recently completed a yearlong cooperative digitization of about 5,000 books in the public domain. The pilot developed procedures for handling and tracking fragile material as well as developing specifications for high-quality scanned images. Google will continue its scanning efforts by digitizing works of historical value from the Library of Congress' Law Library.
To lay the groundwork for the World Digital Library, the Library will develop a plan for identifying technology issues related to digitization and organization of World Digital Library collections. These might include presentation, maintenance and standards that support both access and preservation. The plan will also identify resources, such as equipment, staffing and funding, required to digitize and launch an online presentation of a worldwide collection.
The plan would be made available to libraries, content owners and their supporters. This initiative will complement the large-scale national project that Congress has directed the Library to lead: the formation of a network of institutional partners to build a digital preservation architecture for collecting, preserving and making accessible important material available only in digital form. (For more information about this national program, go to www.digitalpreservation.gov.)
Like the materials in American Memory, those in the World Digital Library will either be in the public domain or made available with special permission.
Speaking to the UNESCO commission, Billington noted that new communications technologies have not always had peaceful uses. He said the invention of movable type had "fanned religious wars" in the 16th century; telegraphy, photography and power-driven presses had "fulminated nationalistic passions and world wars in the 20th century"; and the Internet and global communications have linked transnational terrorist organizations.
"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," the Librarian said.
However, he added, a global digital library containing primary documents of cultures holds out the promise of bringing people closer together as their knowledge and understanding of one another increases.
"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," Billington said.
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library's staff newsletter.