By GAIL FINEBERG
The world is coming closer together on a single Web site as historical cultural materials representing the 193 member nations of UNESCO are being assembled and digitized for addition to a new World Digital Library site. A Library of Congress team is designing the site for an international public launch at a UNESCO executive board meeting in Paris in April 2009.
The launch will bring to fruition the vision of Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. In the 1990s he recognized the potential of the Internet as a tool for peace by bringing together nations’ primary documents that tell the stories of the world’s people and their cultures.
He articulated his ideas for a World Digital Library in a speech he gave at a plenary session of the U.S. National Commission for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) at Georgetown University on June 6, 2005. He said then: “ … 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.”
Since then, the World Digital Library has engendered the official support and sponsorship of UNESCO itself as well as the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA); grown to 14 partnerships among national and state libraries; raised several million dollars and contributed training and equipment in support of digitization projects that poor and developing countries cannot afford; created a prototype of the Web site for demonstration to UNESCO in October 2007; and advanced work on the Web site that will make its debut next spring. The prototype was built by a team from the Office of the Librarian, the Office of Strategic Initiatives, Library Services, contractors and representatives from partner institutions. More than 100 individuals, some volunteers and some part-time, contributed to the prototype. John Van Oudenaren led these efforts as director of the World Digital Library.
One goal the World Digital Library is to make its content freely accessible to everyone in the world; it also aims to enable poor and developing countries to digitize and contribute their cultural documents and to create a multilingual Web site so users can search, browse and read about the documents in the six official UNESCO languages—Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. The content will also be available in Portuguese.
The Librarian and UNESCO Director General M. Koïchiro Matsuura had the opportunity to chat informally about the project during Matsuura’s impromptu visit to the Library on June 27, while he was in Washington on other business. Billington greeted Matsuura in his ceremonial office, then led him on a tour of Library exhibitions in the Thomas Jefferson Building. The two discussed an invitation they plan to issue jointly to all 193 UNESCO members to join the World Digital Library.
Billington and the archivist of the United States, Allen Weinstein, announced July 14 that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) will become a founding partner in the World Digital Library.
NARA will contribute digital versions of important documents from its collections to the World Digital Library, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil War photographs, naturalization and immigration records of famous Americans, and photographs by Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange and Lewis Hine. All of the images that NARA contributes to the World Digital Library are now available at www.archives.gov/research/arc/topics/world-digital-library/.
“We are pleased that our fellow federal cultural institution, the National Archives, is joining the Library of Congress in the early stages of this project,” said Billington. “NARA’s participation not only will ensure that the World Digital Library contains a full record of the American experience, but it also will encourage archives around the world to join with their counterparts from the library world in this important initiative.”
“The mission of the National Archives is to make U.S. government records widely accessible,” said Weinstein. “The World Digital Library will be a valuable conduit for us to share some of our nation’s treasures with others around the world. We look forward to working with the Library of Congress on this important project.”
Signing a cooperative agreement with the World Digital Library on June 27 was a representative of the newly minted National Library of Israel (formerly the Jewish National and University Library, located on the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem).
“We very much wanted to take part in the project to make our materials as widely available as possible and to stimulate interest in our library,” said Carl Posy, academic director of the National Library of Israel.
“This is a happy occasion. We are happy to have you join this effort to enrich the world as we tell our stories through the Internet,” Billington said.
The National Library of Israel will contribute rare versions of the writings of the 12th-century philosopher and theologian Moses Maimonides, in manuscript and early printed editions. “Worthy of particular mention are a 12th-century manuscript of Maimonides’ Judeo-Arabic commentary on the Mishnah Mo’ed and Nashim in his own handwriting and an illuminated manuscript of his Mishneh Torah from 14th-century Spain,” said Elhanan Adler, deputy director for information technology at the National Library of Israel.
Adler explained that Maimonides wrote in Judeo-Arabic, which is classical Arabic written in Hebrew letters.
Digitizing materials for addition to the World Digital Library is no problem for the National Library of Israel. “We’re not new to the game. We have been digitizing manuscripts, books, maps and newspapers, and we have the world’s largest collection of Jewish marriage contracts,” Adler said.
In addition to these two new members and the Library of Congress, the World Digital Library partners are the National Library of Brazil; the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the National Library and Archives of Egypt, both in Egypt; the Iraq National Library and Archives; the Tetouan-Asmir Association in Morocco; the National Library of Russia, the Russian State Library and the Yeltsin Presidential Library, all in the Russian Federation; the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia; the National Library of Serbia; and the University Library in Bratislava, in Slovakia.
In a UNESCO presentation (Paris, Nov. 30, 2006), Billington emphasized that the World Digital Library should be more than an amalgamation of digital documents from all the regions of the planet. “I do not believe that a World Digital Library can be the mere mechanical aggregation of the various national and regional parts. As a historian, I know that ‘world history’ is not just the sum of our separate national and regional histories. Rather, it is a subdiscipline in its own right, focused on offering comparative, cross-national and cross-cultural perspectives—at its best helping people ask the big questions about what civilizations share in common and what makes them distinctive.”
Billington’s philosophy seems to be guiding the work of a Library team of experts that is constructing the World Digital Library Web site. Designed to allow users to make comparisons about what was going on in history at any given time or in any given place, the home page is deceptively simple.
A map of the world fills the screen. Icons and rolling text indicate how many documents populate the site from North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Africa, Central and South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceana and the Pacific.
Tabs across the top of the screen give searchers the option of browsing the world’s documents by place, time, topic, type of item or contributing institution. One click will assemble all the world’s documents related to a selected topic. Alternately, a user may slide bars along a timeline across the bottom of the page to assemble all the available documents that were created during the same period or at the same time in history, between 3000 BCE and 2008. As the images appear, so does explanatory text—in any one of the seven languages selected by the user from a pull-down menu. And all of this searching and browsing may be done in seven languages.
“Metadata is the key to the success of the site,” said Michelle Rago, technical project director. In addition to providing meaningful context for the documents, adequate metadata (information about the data being offered through the site) ensures searchability and browsability, and it has to be consistent for the site’s interoperability. IFLA is playing a role in this aspect by recommending best practices for digital libraries as well as international standards for the creation of metadata.
Working groups sponsored by the World Digital Library and led by representatives from partner institutions also play a role by reviewing content for authenticity and objectivity and by offering advice on the technical architecture.
Although the Library of Congress is constructing the original site, which will reside on one server at the Library and in duplicate on another server at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the World Digital Library will depend on content contributed by partner institutions throughout the world. “A network of scanning centers, located mainly in cultural institutions in developing countries, is needed to carry out the digitization of important cultural artifacts in these countries, thereby making sure that all cultures and languages are represented in the World Digital Library,” Billington said at a 2006 UNESCO meeting of digital experts.
“The Library of Congress already has worked with our fellow national libraries in Brazil and Egypt in setting up these kinds of centers, building on our experience going back to the late 1990s in working with the Russian State Library and the National Library of Russia. The content produced by these scanning centers, supplemented by content contributed from existing projects, will begin to fill up the World Digital Library repository,” he said.
For more information about the World Digital Library, go to www.worlddigitallibrary.org/project/english/.
Gail Fineberg is the editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.