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World Digital Library Aims To Promote Global Understanding

An Internet page shows an old Islamic text in Arabic that is part of the World Digital Library.
(RFE/RL) -- The UN's cultural agency, UNESCO, the U.S. Library of Congress, and other partner institutions are launching a World Digital Library on April 21 -- a website featuring cultural materials from libraries and archives around the world.

It's an attempt to promote peace and global cultural understanding through digital Internet technology.

Archivists at libraries around the world are teaming up to create the digital database of manuscripts, maps, rare books, films, sound recordings, artwork, and photographs from their collections.

Abdul Waheed Khan, UNESCO's assistant director-general for communications and information, says the project aims to promote social progress and better standards of living around the world by helping to build what he calls "inclusive knowledge societies."

"Any vision of building inclusive knowledge societies has to be based on some fundamental principles -- for example, universal access to information and knowledge, cultural and linguistic diversity, freedom of expression, and quality education for all," Khan says. "To all the four fundamental principles of building knowledge societies, the digitization of libraries contributes. But it also contributes to the overall mandate of UNESCO. That is, through mutual understanding promoting peace."

'Unlimited Opportunities'

Khan says the World Digital Library also promotes Article 19 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression -- including the right to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media, regardless of frontiers.

There are hundreds of thousands of libraries. Once you empower them through the digitization process, then you create almost unlimited opportunities for people to access information and knowledge.
"The fundamental principle of universal access to information and knowledge is largely met by digitizing the content and making these contents freely available to every part of the world -- the cultural objects in particular -- so that people, without having to move anywhere, have access to content and creative aspects of society from any part of the world to any other part of the world," he says.

"There are hundreds of thousands of libraries. Once you empower them through the digitization process, then you create almost unlimited opportunities for people to access information and knowledge," Khan adds.

The creation of the World Digital Library was proposed in 2005 by James Billington, librarian of the United States Congress. Billington also had championed the American Memory National Digital Library Program, which makes freely available online more than 8.5 million American historical items from the collections of the U.S. Library of Congress and other research institutions.

Unrestricted Public Access

Teams of experts from the Library of Congress also have been working on the World Digital Library -- essentially trying to consolidate digital archives from around the world so that there is unrestricted public access to such materials, free of charge, around the world.

The World Digital Library is to function in seven languages -- Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. But it also includes content in many other languages.

The website's browse and search features are designed to facilitate crosscultural exploration. Descriptions of each item, and videos with expert curators speaking about selected items, will provide context for users. They are intended to spark curiosity and encourage both students and the general public to learn more about the cultural heritage of all countries.

Examples of some of the material featured by the World Digital Library include Arabic scientific manuscripts from the National Library and Archives of Egypt; early photographs of Latin America from the National Library of Brazil; the Hyakumanto darani, a publication from the year 764 from the National Diet Library of Japan; the 13th-century "Devil's Bible" from the National Library of Sweden; and works of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish calligraphy from the collections of the U.S. Library of Congress.

Google, the U.S. firm that operates the popular Internet search engine, contributed $3 million dollars to develop details of the projects and help pay for its global outreach.

Google also has digitized thousands of books from the U.S. Library of Congress in recent years as part of a pilot project to refine the techniques of making digital copies of fragile books without damaging them.

Some publishers have alleged copyright infringement over Google's own project to digitize millions of library books from the collections of Stanford University, Harvard University, the University of Michigan, Oxford University, and the New York Public Library.

Google has argued that its efforts to scan all library books is legal and in the public interest. Still, its participation the World Digital Library has been limited to materials that already are in the public domain and therefore not subject to copyright protection.