By GAIL FINEBERG
In no single place but the World Digital Library (WDL) would one find a gathering of the globe’s earliest cultural treasures—the first great novel in world literature (believed to have been written by a Japanese woman at the turn of the 11th century), an 1180 liturgical work considered the most important and beautiful Serbian manuscript, a 1473 astronomical work on measuring and keeping time, in Arabic.
These are but three of the cultural treasures that 25 institutions in 18 countries contributed to this new global library for its launch in Paris on April 21, at a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The launch version of the World Digital Library features some 1,200 digital items, including content about all 192 UNESCO member countries.
The world seemed to embrace the new international cultural-heritage website (www.wdl.org ) that contains works by many noted poets, mathematicians, theologians, philosophers, astronomers, cartographers, and historians. In addition to rare books, maps, and manuscripts, the site also contains cultural heritage in more modern formats—films, sound recordings, and prints and photographs.
In as much time as it takes to send an e-mail from Paris to Washington, word of the World Digital Library sped around the globe following an introductory news conference. Within one hour of the time the World Digital Library made its debut on April 21, the site had received 700,000 page views. By the end of the first day, the site had registered more than 7.1 million page views and a total of 615,000 visitors from every country in the world.
The launch fulfilled the dream of a scholar-librarian, who in the 1990s grasped the potential for digital technology to bridge borders by enabling people to find common ground in their unique creative and intellectual endeavors.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington took his idea for the World Digital Library to UNESCO in 2005, remarking that such a project could “have the salutary effect of bringing people together by celebrating the depth and uniqueness of different cultures in a single global undertaking.”
In a statement issued to the press, UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura welcomed the proposal as a “great initiative that will help to bridge the knowledge divide, promote mutual understanding and foster cultural and linguistic diversity.”
The site functions in the six official languages of the United Nations—Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish—plus Portuguese, and includes content in more than 40 languages.
Browse and search features facilitate cross-cultural and cross-temporal exploration. Descriptions of each item, along with videos with expert curators speaking about selected items, provide context for users and are intended to spark curiosity and encourage both students and the general public to learn more about the cultural heritage of all countries.
A Library of Congress team led by project director John Van Oudenaren and technical project director Michelle Rago developed the World Digital Library. (See story on page 92.) Technical assistance was provided by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of Alexandria, Egypt.
Institutions contributing content to the WDL include national libraries and cultural and educational institutions in Brazil, Egypt, China, France, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Qatar, the Russian Federation, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States. Institutions in many other countries are committed to joining the project, and will be contributing content as the WDL is developed.
“We are honored to be working with so many great libraries in this venture,” said Billington, “and thankful for the strong support that UNESCO has given to this project. What we launched today is a first step. We look forward to seeing this project realize its ambition to bring people together, deepen our understanding of each other, and help electronically oriented young people enjoy what is best in traditional culture, using the new media.”
“UNESCO welcomes the creation of the World Digital Library which reflects the values and priorities of our organization,” Matsuura declared. “WDL offers an invaluable platform for the free flow of information, for international solidarity, for the celebration of cultural diversity and for the building of inclusive knowledge societies. With projects like the Digital Library, the cultural and societal potential of digital technologies come into their own.”
Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned, UNESCO special envoy for basic and higher education and chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation, congratulated UNESCO and the partner institutions on the launch of the WDL. “Qatar is very proud to be a founding member of this remarkable international collaboration,” she said. She noted that “universal education is the key to international understanding,” and “this endeavor will do much to develop the appreciation of other cultures and nations.”
The National Library of China (NLC) contributed manuscripts, maps, books, and rubbings of steles and oracle bones that span the range of Chinese history from ancient to modern times. “The World Digital Library project offers a brand-new platform for showcasing the diversity of the world’s civilizations,” said Furui Zhan, chief librarian of the NLC. “This endeavor enables cultural exchange while bringing together different countries and peoples in mutual understanding and enrichment. The spirit of equality and open understanding comes into full view with the creation of this World Digital Library. The National Library of China is ready to work in close cooperation with the World Digital Library, continuing to promote in concert the prosperity and progress of all human civilizations.”
Examples of other treasures featured include Arabic scientific manuscripts from the National Library and Archives of Egypt; early photographs of Latin America from the National Library of Brazil; the “Hyakumanto darani,” a publication from A.D. 764 from the National Diet Library of Japan; the famous 13th century “Devil’s Bible” from the National Library of Sweden; and works of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish calligraphy from the collections of the Library of Congress.
Ahead of the launch, Matsuura invited UNESCO member states to encourage their cultural institutions to participate in the development of the project. He noted that their participation would contribute to a truly universal digital library that showcases the cultural heritage and achievements of all countries. Matsuura also highlighted the synergies between this initiative and UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program, noting that the WDL should help provide public access to digital versions of collections on the Memory of the World register.
One of UNESCO’s main mandates is to promote the free flow of all forms of knowledge in education, science, culture and communication. The organization therefore promotes education, research and exchanges through the improved and increased availability of content on the Internet. To this end, it collaborates with a number of partners on the creation of digital and other repositories.
The unique World Digital Library interface functions in seven languages—Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish—and includes content in several dozen languages. Descriptions of each item, and videos with expert curators speaking about selected items, provide context for users, and are intended to spark curiosity and encourage both students and the general public to learn more about the cultural heritage of all countries.
The World Digital Library Timeline
June 6, 2005
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington introduces the concept of a World Digital Library in a speech before the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), at Georgetown University. (www.loc.gov/about/librarianoffice/speeches/)
The Library of Congress receives $3 million from Google, Inc., to finance the development of a comprehensive plan for the World Digital Library project. Google becomes the first company in a public-private partnership to support this effort.
UNESCO, the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO and the Library of Congress convene a conference at UNESCO headquarters in Paris to discuss the Library’s initiative to create a World Digital Library. The meeting concludes with an agreement to establish a number of working groups that will carry forward planning for the project in such areas as content selection, system architecture, and standards and best practices.
The Library of Congress demonstrates the prototype of the World Digital Library at the 34th UNESCO General Conference. The Librarian, along with Abdul Waheed Khan, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, sign a memorandum of understanding pledging UNESCO support for the World Digital Library.
June 27, 2008
UNESCO Director General Koïchiro Matsuura visits the Library to meet with the Librarian of Congress and discuss the WDL project. The two discuss an invitation they will issue jointly to 192 UNESCO members to join the WDL.
April 21, 2009
The World Digital Library is launched at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.