The World Digital Library (WDL) went live this week, making available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world.
Among the documents available for online perusal are a 1491 mathematical manuscript from Egypt entitled "Guide to Operations on Irrational Radicals for Neophytes," a 1470 German illuminated manuscript that includes part of the text of the Apocalypse of Saint John, selections from the Naxi Manuscript Collection of ceremonial writings from Yunnan Province in China (some dating to the 16th century), and hundreds of other rare and delicate artworks and documents.
The principal objectives of the WDL are to:
- Promote international and intercultural understanding;
- Expand the volume and variety of cultural content on the Internet;
- Provide resources for educators, scholars, and general audiences;
- Build capacity in partner institutions to narrow the digital divide within and between countries.
U.S. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington proposed the establishment of the WDL in a speech to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in June 2005. The basic idea was to create an Internet-based, easily accessible collection of the world's cultural riches that would tell the stories and highlight the achievements of all countries and cultures, thereby promoting cross-cultural awareness and understanding.
In 2006, UNESCO and the Library of Congress convened an Experts Meeting to discuss the project. The assembled experts from all parts of the world identified a number of challenges that the project would need to overcome to be successful. This led to the establishment of working groups to develop guidelines for the project, and to a decision by the Library of Congress, UNESCO, and five partner institutions -- the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the National Library of Brazil, the National Library and Archives of Egypt, the National Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library -- to develop and contribute content to a WDL prototype to be presented at the UNESCO General Conference in 2007. Input into the design of the prototype was solicited through a consultative process that involved UNESCO, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), and individuals and institutions in more than forty countries.
The successful unveiling of the prototype was followed by a decision by several libraries to develop a public, freely accessible version of the WDL, for launch at UNESCO in April 2009. More than two dozen institutions contributed content to the launch version of the site.
The public version of the site features high-quality digital items reflecting the cultural heritage of all UNESCO member countries. The WDL will continue to add content to the site, and will enlist new partners from the widest possible range of UNESCO members in the project.