Biobliotheca Alexandrina, one of the partners in the World Digital Library.

World Digital Library Aims to Be “Unrivalled Educational Tool”

April 09, 2009 03:04 PM
by Liz Colville
A project of the Library of Congress and UNESCO, the library will gather some of the world's most prominent collections online.

World Digital Library (WDL) Will Launch April 21

Dr. James Billington of the Library of Congress suggested the idea of a global digital library at a UNESCO meeting in 2005, Library Journal reports. He described it as an effort to "bring people together by celebrating the depth and uniqueness of different cultures in a single global undertaking." Since then, libraries in countries including Sweden, Iraq and Egypt have contributed to a "truly global library" that is being launched at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris later this month.

UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and has been working with the Library of Congress to curate the online collection. Not only is it intended to be a sophisticated and 'unrivalled educational tool,' but also a diplomatic tool and a counter to mainstream media.

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John Van Oudenaren, the director of the project, told The Guardian, "We hope that this brings cultures together, that it promotes better understanding between those cultures and that it provides educational uses for a world in which reading and scholarship have to face competition from 24/7 media."

The World Digital Library currently has 32 partners, but hopes to grow this, as the project is "very much an ongoing, long-term process," Van Oudenaren added.

The project is significant in part because of the Middle East's involvement. Partners include the Biobliotheca Alexandrina, a recently rebuilt library in Alexandria, Egypt, that is modeled after the city's ancient library, founded in 288 BC. The Central Library of the Qatar Foundation, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and several others are also involved.

Background: Putting the world's information on the Web

The WDL is hardly the only online library project in the works. The Economist recently profiled Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive and Alexa, who is working to create an online collection of information. Its model is his Internet Archive, which contains videos, music and texts from a variety of sources, and a famous tool called the Wayback Machine, an archive of the Web of the past.

However, Kahle is one of many, overshadowed by more well-known technology companies such as Google and by the Library of Congress. Google’s digital library effort is mired in a copyright battle that reached a preliminary settlement in October 2008. However, the company remains one to watch in the quest to bring more information online.

The U.S. Library of Congress National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program is another notable project in information preservation.

But Kahle doesn’t seem threatened by rival projects. His passion is seemingly for the footprints tracked across the Web over time. The Internet Archive is not only a project in freedom and accessibility, but in preservation, something that might have charmed even the late John Updike, a skeptic of book digitalization.

Kahle describes his Internet Archive as “Alexandria 2.0.” The reference is to the ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt—the Bibliotheca Alexandrina—which was founded in 288 B.C. by Ptolemy I during the height of Alexander the Great’s empire. It was “part academy, part research center, and part library,” explains the Web site of the New Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a library erected in its place in 2002.

“The great thinkers of the age, scientists, mathematicians, poets from all cultures came to study and exchange ideas” at the first Bibliotheca. The library lasted for more than six centuries, but deteriorated with the advent of war, an accidental fire and neglect. The new library opened in 2002 and boasts not only a 500,000-book collection, but also an Internet archive, planetarium, specialized libraries, museums and more.

Opinion & Analysis: Will the presses die out?

In a much-discussed 2006 article in The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!” Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine argued that an online universal library, presumably from Google, was imminent, and that not even legal battles could stand in its way.

Books “can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library,” Kelly asserted. “Soon a book outside the library will be like a Web page outside the Web, gasping for air. Indeed, the only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire their texts into the universal library.”

Some thought Kelly’s vision was misguided. Online texts “will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you,” argued Anthony Grafton in The New Yorker in 2007. “The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books.”

John Updike felt similarly. In a Times op-ed, “The End of Authorship,” the late author called Kelly’s prediction “a pretty grisly scenario.”

Kelly suggested that books would be thought less of as “copies” and more as “performances, access to the creator, personalization” with the advent of digitalization. Updike responded, “[D]oes this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value?”

Reference: World Digital Library; The Internet Archive


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