Digital Library Project Aims at the Middle East
An eighth-century fragment of the Quran, currently sitting in the Library of Congress, is now accessible to anyone at the click of a mouse. The faded yellow Arabic manuscript — which teaches about creation and angels — “could have been touched by the youngest companions of the prophet Muhammad,” says the online text describing the fragment.
Its viewership now spans the early days of Islam’s founding to 21st-century computers.
This particular fragment is one of more than 1,200 primary sources digitized by the World Digital Library project, a global effort to post primary documents online.
Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned, wife of the emir of Qatar and UNESCO special envoy for basic and higher education, recently visited the Library and signed a memorandum to increase the number of Middle Eastern documents on the website.
She said the new technology enables knowledge, and the documents provide “different angles and dimensions” and allow Arabs and Westerners to “reach out to each other.”
“Primary sources are scattered across the Arabic world,” said Abdel Rahman Azzam, al-Missned’s communication director. “People have no access to this wealth of knowledge. … Some societies haven’t seen these manuscripts for hundreds of years. The only way to learn is through digitizing.”
The memorandum is just one example of how the project will continue to grow, said Jennifer Gavin, LOC senior public affairs specialist. The WDL expects to have 100 partners in 75 countries by midsummer.
In collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and 76 partners in 51 countries, the LOC in April 2009 began an effort to digitize history’s “priceless treasures” and launched the first large-scale website of scanned artifacts.
The site allows viewers to access rare ancient maps, photographs, books and records that have been posted to the WDL from around the globe, free of charge.
Translated into seven languages, the site includes objects from eighth-century B.C. to the present day and allows visitors to search by time frame, region, topic, type of item or host institution.
Documents include thousand-year-old scientific manuscripts from Egypt and the personal journals of Frederick Forbes, a British naval officer who tried to persuade the king of Dahomey to end the slave trade in 1851.
Visitors to the site can view historical Japanese art or compare 18th-century cartography of southern China with today’s maps.
Gavin believes the “sweeping digitization” will provide a tool for students and researchers around the world by providing academics access to documents housed oceans away.
“As James Billington says: It’s getting the Champagne out of the bottle — getting knowledge out to people who want it all over the world,” she said, quoting the Librarian of Congress. “With the ability of the computer and the Internet, there is no reason not to digitize.”
She also believes an increase in knowledge will “enhance world understanding.”
Of the 145 million items housed at the LOC, about 19 million are digitally scanned and more than 500 appear on the WDL site. The Library prioritizes digitizing artifacts that are most popular to patrons.
Although Gavin said digitization technology has “revolutionized the concept of libraries,” neither she nor LOC staff worry that the Internet and sites such as the WDL will replace the need for libraries.
“The radio did not replace the book, which in turn has not been supplanted by television, and all of which still coexist with the Internet,” she said. “Technology often has a way of adding without subtracting. It is enabling libraries to expand their missions and to serve new constituencies”
Since launching in April 2009, the WDL has seen nearly 10 million site visitors. Visit the WDL at wdl.org.