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Collection World Digital Library

About this Collection

This collection contains cultural heritage materials gathered during the World Digital Library (WDL) project, including thousands of items contributed by partner organizations worldwide as well as content from Library of Congress collections. The original World Digital Library site (preserved in LC’s Web Archives here) and all descriptive metadata were translated from English and made available in six additional languages: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Arabic, Russian, and Chinese. All item records include narrative descriptions submitted by the contributing partners and enhanced by WDL researchers to contextualize the item and its cultural and historical importance. Books, manuscripts, maps, and other primary materials in the WDL collection are presented in their original languages; more than 100 languages are represented, including many lesser known and endangered languages.

Launched in 2009, the World Digital Library was a project of the U.S. Library of Congress, with the support of UNESCO, and contributions from libraries, archives, museums, educational institutions, and international organizations around the world. The WDL sought to preserve and share some of the world’s most important cultural objects, increasing access to cultural treasures and significant historical documents to enable discovery, scholarship, and use.

WDL partner institutions selected content in accordance with guidelines set by the WDL Content Selection Committee. They chose content for its cultural and historical importance, with due regard to recognition of the achievements of all countries and cultures over a wide range of time periods. The materials collected by the WDL include cultural treasures and significant historical documents including books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, journals, prints, photographs, sound recordings, and films.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington proposed the establishment of the WDL in a speech to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in June 2005. The basic idea was to create an Internet-based, easily-accessible collection of the world’s cultural riches that would tell the stories and highlight the achievements of all countries and cultures, thereby promoting cross-cultural awareness and understanding. UNESCO welcomed the idea as a contribution toward fulfilling its strategic objectives, which include promoting knowledge societies, building capacity in developing countries, and promoting cultural diversity on the web. UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura designated UNESCO’s Directorate for Communication and Information, then led by Dr. Abdul Waheed Khan, to work with the Library of Congress to develop the project.

In December 2006, UNESCO and the Library of Congress convened an Experts Meeting at UNESCO headquarters in Paris to discuss the project. Experts from all parts of the world identified a number of challenges that the project would need to overcome to be successful. They noted that little cultural content was being digitized in many countries, and that developing countries in particular lacked the capacity to digitize and display their cultural treasures. Existing websites often had poorly developed search and display functions. Multilingual access was not well developed.

The Experts Meeting led to the establishment of working groups to develop guidelines for the project, and to a decision by the Library of Congress, UNESCO, and five partner institutions – the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the National Library of Brazil, the National Library and Archives of Egypt, the National Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library – to contribute content to a WDL prototype to be presented at the UNESCO General Conference in 2007. Input into the design of the prototype was solicited through a consultative process that involved UNESCO, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), and individuals and institutions in more than forty countries. The successful unveiling of the prototype was followed by a decision by these institutions to develop a public, freely-accessible version of the WDL.

A team at the Library of Congress then developed the public, online version of the WDL, which was launched at UNESCO in April 2009. Twenty-six institutions contributed content to the launch version of the site. Launch partners included national libraries and cultural organizations in Brazil, China, Egypt, Mexico, Russia, France, Sweden, Uganda, the United States and other locations worldwide.

Following the launch, the WDL continued to add content to the site and to enlist new partners from all parts of the world. In April 2010, institutions and organizations contributing to the WDL adopted the WDL Charter, which established a permanent governance structure.

In 2020, the WDL Charter concluded. In 2021, after more than 10 years of operation, the Library transitioned WDL’s world-wide collection of cross-cultural treasures into a sustainable home for perpetual access on the Library of Congress’s main website. The original World Digital Library site is preserved by the Library of Congress Web Archive, which captures the look and feel of the site. Now available on the Library’s main website, the collection is a rich and valuable resource showing the diversity of the world’s cultures through the contributions of hundreds of organizations.

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