By MICHAEL NEUBERT and MICHELLE RAGO
The Washington Post summed up the Library’s prototype of a World Digital Library (WDL), presented in Paris during the 34th UNESCO General Conference in mid-October: “As ideas go, they don’t come much bigger.”
Under the leadership of Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, Library staff demonstrated the prototype of the World Digital Library. The Librarian, along with Abdul Waheed Khan, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Communication and Information, signed a memorandum of understanding pledging UNESCO support for the World Digital Library.
UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura spoke at an evening reception on Oct. 17 to celebrate the presentation of the prototype, which he said “is a truly remarkable achievement and clearly illustrates the project’s enormous potential.”
Remarking on the long-standing relationship between the Library and UNESCO, Matsuura noted that Archibald MacLeish, Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944, was one of the main architects of UNESCO’s constitution.
Billington explained the role of the World Digital Library: “The key objective of the World Digital Library ought to be to promote international and intercultural understanding and awareness. We can pursue this objective by using electronic technologies to give as many people as possible access to important and interesting primary source materials from and about every country.”
The Librarian originally proposed the concept for a World Digital Library in a speech to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in June 2005, when he said, “Libraries are inherently islands of freedom and antidotes to fanaticism. They are temples of pluralism where books that contradict one another stand peacefully side by side on the shelves just as intellectual antagonists work peacefully next to each other in reading rooms.”
Then in December 2006, Billington and other Library staff met with UNESCO and International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) representatives and agreed to present the WDL prototype at this year’s UNESCO General Conference.
The mission of the World Digital Library is to make available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from cultures around the world, including manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical scores, recordings, films, prints, photographs, architectural drawings and other significant cultural materials.
As Billington said, the objectives are to promote international and intercultural understanding, increase the quantity and diversity of cultural materials on the Internet, contribute to education and scholarship and build digital conversion capacity in developing nations. The prototype draws upon the contributions of the Library of Congress and five partner institutions—the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of Alexandria, Egypt; the National Library of Brazil; the National Library and Archives of Egypt; the National Library of Russia; and the Russian State Library.
The WDL multilateral partner approach builds on the Library’s long experience with bilateral digital conversion partnerships that are presented in the Global Gateway portion of the Library’s Web site.
The Library has significant experience in one important aspect of the World Digital Library—that of building digital library capabilities in the developing world. The Library loaned digitization equipment to the Russian State Library, the National Library of Russia, the National Library of Brazil and more recently to the National Library and Archives of Egypt. Library staff also provided training on how to use the equipment, create appropriate metadata and manage digital conversion projects in general.
WDL partners contributed to the successful launch of the prototype in various ways. They provided content and language expertise, and were particularly effective in conducting presentations in Paris in Arabic, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina played a unique role by hosting a mirror site of the prototype to reinforce the ultimate goal of developing a network of WDL mirrors around the world.
The prototype was built by a team from the Office of the Librarian, the Office of Strategic Initiatives, Library Services, contractors and representatives from partner institutions. More than 100 individuals, some volunteers and some part-time, contributed to the prototype. John Van Oudenaren led these efforts as director of the World Digital Library.
Development of the prototype was completed in seven months. One of the objectives was to create a fully functioning application that demonstrated the goals, potential and required technical capabilities of the World Digital Library. This experience allowed the WDL team to learn more about issues inherent in delivering content in multiple languages and to test new approaches in digital library development. The site supports searching and browsing in seven languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. The interface is designed to help users find what they are looking for and to encourage exploration.
These features depend on consistent, high-quality metadata. Existing metadata records were enhanced by Library catalogers to ensure that each item could be fully integrated into the prototype. Each metadata record was then translated into the required languages and integrated into the Web application.
Van Oudenaren said that the prototype seeks to create “an equivalent user experience, no matter what language you are using; too many sites are multilingual in a very superficial sense.”
Following the signing of the agreement with UNESCO, Billington and representatives of the partner organizations spoke at a well-attended press conference, including TV crews from Russia and Egypt. Van Oudenaren presented the prototype by emphasizing the various ways to discover the spectacular content. In the days after the press event, stories appeared throughout the world, which indicates broad interest in the World Digital Library concept.
During UNESCO’s General Conference, Library staff and World Digital Library partners demonstrated the prototype to a steady stream of interested world leaders, including U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and ambassadors and ministers from around the world.
The future of the WDL will involve fund raising. A gift of $3 million from Google has supported the planning and prototype development process. Apple, Intel, One Laptop per Child and the dotMobi Foundation provided in-kind support for the prototype launch. These organizations sent representatives to Paris to demonstrate the prototype and related applications.
Working groups for content selection, technical architecture and digital library guidelines have been established to assist with moving World Digital Library from a prototype to production. The prototype is not available to the public. Plans are to make a production version available in late 2008 or early 2009.
Michelle Rago is technical project director for the World Digital Library. Michael Neubert is team leader of the Digital Conversion Team.