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World Digital Library opens up culture to internet users

Latest update : 2009-04-20

The ambitious World Digital Library, an online cultural and historical treasure trove that will offer internet users free access to hundreds of thousands of free documents and images from around the world, launches on Tuesday.

AFP - When the World Digital Library goes live on Tuesday a former US professor's vision of fostering global understanding by making cultural treasures accessible to a huge audience takes a leap forward.
"This is a way of stimulating people to think about the interaction of cultures," James Billington, who has headed the US Library of Congress since 1987, told AFP days before the launch of the ambitious online library.
"We hope it will increase international understanding and also increase the curiosity of the world we live in about cultural achievements of humanity.
"And the beauty of this whole system is that it doesn't prejudge who it's for. It's for everyone," said Billington.
He pitched the project to global partners when the United States rejoined the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2003 after a nearly 20-year absence.
"I suggested that we set up a world digital library, and that we do it in all languages of the United Nations -- Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish," Billington said.
He drew on the positive experiences of the 209-year-old US Library of Congress in digitizing the tens of millions of items it holds.
"Putting together our national digital library taught us that new technology is a wonderful way to get together old cultural and historical primary documents, of which there is very often only one copy, and make them accessible to everyone," Billington said.
The site that will go live on Tuesday at is based on a prototype presented to UNESCO officials at the organization's Paris headquarters in late 2007.
"If you click on one geographic cluster, such as Europe, you get all the content about Europe," Michelle Rago, technical director for the global online reference tool, told AFP.
"If you're interested in learning more, you go to an item and get a detailed page," she said.
Tens of thousands of images and pages of information have been digitized and translated for the site's debut.
Twenty-six partners in 19 countries, including the national libraries of Egypt, France, Iraq and Mexico, have contributed to the library.
Although that is far from globally representative, the worldwide reference tool will open its virtual doors and card catalogue to the online public in the hope of attracting more partners and funding.
"Everybody's welcome. This is not a private club. Everybody's welcome to participate and it's all free," Billington said, stressing the Library of Congress does not see itself as the sole motor of the global online library.
"We hope that the site's relative freedom from many of the political and economic controversies will lead to more funding and partners, so that this becomes a genuinely international project," he said.
Among the items that visitors will be able to view are Islamic manuscripts from Mali, where book production featuring Arabic script that originated in the eighth and ninth centuries in Iraq has been practised for nearly a millennium.
Users will be able to delve into the 11th century "Tale of Genji", a jewel of Japanese literature that is recognized as one of the oldest novels in the world, or view the first map to mention "America", drafted in 1507 by German monk Martin Waldseemueller and on permanent display at the Library of Congress.
The national library of the Philippines has posted the first book ever published in Spanish and Tagalog, and there's an Aleutian translation of the Bible by a Russian saint.
The oldest item is an 8,000-year-old painting of bleeding antelopes from South Africa.
"These are really great treasures, not merely miscellaneous things about a country or culture," Billington said.
"I hope this will be educational but I don't shrink from the fact that it will be fun. Seeing a place for the first time, seeing how X is related to Y, or a very rare coming-together of different civilizations, is fun," said the nearly 80-year-old who once taught history at Harvard and Princeton.
While Billington is certain the library will be well received, he is under no illusions it will be an overnight sensation.
"It's like exhibits at the Library of Congress.
"For the first couple of weeks, word just gets round and then you get huge mobs," he said.

Date created : 2009-04-20