A World At Our Fingertips

Library Site Opens

Posted April 21, 2009 at 4:06pm

The world’s priceless historic treasures can now be accessed through your fingertips.

The Library of Congress, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and 32 other groups on Tuesday launched the World Digital Library Project, a Web site featuring rare maps, manuscripts, books, films and photographs from across the globe.

The Web site offers information about “every country in the world, no matter how small that country is,— WDL Director John Van Oudenaren said.

“You don’t have to travel to see some of the world’s rare collections.—

This electronic library contains items from the earliest-known Chinese writing, called the oracle bones, to Persian, Arabic and Turkish calligraphy.

Aimed at expanding non-English and non-Western content online, the WDL is available in six other languages — Chinese, French, Arabic, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese.

“One of the challenges of creating this Web site is the complex translation process,— said Van Oudenaren, who has been with LOC since 1996. The LOC had to hire a private company to do the translation, he said.

Searching the WDL is like using Google. Users can browse and search the topic, time, place and type of item, which may include prints, photographs, musical scores and architectural drawings, among others.

The Web site also features videos from curators explaining the importance of each collection and how it reveals the country’s culture. Van Oudenaren said this was meant to encourage users to learn more about the cultural heritage of other countries.

He said they are hoping the electronic library will attract not only scholars, but also teachers and students. “One of the criteria in choosing the contents was that it should be interesting and important to general Internet users,— he said.

The WDL is the brainchild of James Billington, the Librarian of Congress. He proposed the idea of a global digital library in a speech to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in June 2005. The digital library “would hold out the promise of bringing people closer together precisely celebrating the depth and uniqueness of different cultures in a single global undertaking,— Billington said.

As such, the WDL concentrated on presenting collections that are physically stored in geographically dispersed locations. To accomplish this, the LOC, the world’s largest library, partnered with national libraries from Brazil, Egypt, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Uganda to provide additional content to the Web site.

In 2007, the LOC and UNESCO launched a prototype of the electronic library, which included 19th-century Brazilian photographs, a 17th-century world map and a voice recording of the 101-year-old grandson of an American slave.

Other examples of treasures that came from national libraries overseas are the Arabic scientific manuscripts from Egypt; the Hyakumanto Darani, a woodblock print dated 764 from Japan; and the famous 13th-century “Devil’s Bible— (with a striking portrait of the devil) that originated in Bohemia.