The idea was as big as the planet itself: Gather and digitize the globe’s cultural treasures, assemble them on one website and make them available to the world for free and in multiple languages. Such a project, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in proposing it, would bring people together by “celebrating the uniqueness of different cultures in a single, shared global undertaking.”
Today, the World Digital Library – the international project inspired by Billington and led by the Library of Congress – will mark its fifth anniversary of online operation.
The World Digital Library launched on April 21, 2009, with 26 global partners in 18 countries and some 1,200 items in its online collections. Today, the network has 181 partners – mostly archives, libraries and museums – in 80 countries that collectively have contributed more than 10,000 manuscripts, maps, books, prints, photographs, journals, newspapers, sound recordings and motion pictures.
The online collections contain a wide range of great primary cultural and historical documents: The U.S. Constitution, the Japanese work considered the world’s first novel, the magnificent illustrated Bible of Borso d’Este, ancient Arabic works on algebra, a 2,200-year-old papyrus fragment of Euripides’ play “Orestes,” an African rock painting of an antelope that is perhaps 8,000 years old.
The project’s appeal, director John Van Oudenaren said, lies in the breadth of the collection and the high quality of the objects and presentation.
“What’s really been striking is how the libraries – some very great libraries – have put forward their top things,” Van Oudenaren said. “They’ve put forward fantastic, rare things. It’s kind of astounding what people send.”
Those fantastic, rare things span the globe: The collection items represent countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and 192 nations in between.
Part of the World Digital Library’s groundbreaking mission lies in the presentation: Each item is provided with consistent metadata; translated into Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish; and presented with high-resolution, deep-zoom photos that reveal even the paper fibers in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. Those images – now nearly 500,000 in number – allow visitors to inspect each note of “The Magic Flute” in Mozart’s original handwritten score; navigate each Mexico City street via a map drawn just after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs; or examine each calligraphic stroke in a Holy Qur’an from Iran’s national library.
“The World Digital Library is a very intensive, value-added project,” Van Oudenaren said. “There are digital-library projects of all kinds. Some focus on aggregating metadata and putting a lot of content online without really upgrading. World Digital Library is different. We take content at different levels of enrichment in terms of metadata and raise it to a single level.”
The site’s audience is as global as its content. In its first five years, the World Digital Library attracted nearly 30 million users from 231 international jurisdictions around the world, drawing visitors from continent-spanning countries (Russia, Australia) and tiny island territories (Kiribati, Wallis and Futuna) alike. Spain, Brazil, Mexico, the United States and China provide the most visitors, and Spanish, English and Portuguese are the most-used languages. Increasingly, visitors come from Arabic-speaking countries across Africa and the Middle East: Arabic now ranks fourth in use on the site.
Going forward, the World Digital Library aims to expand the depth and geographic range of its collections and partner institutions – ideally gaining at least one partner in each country.
“We’ve got partners in 80 countries, but there are 194 countries in the world so it still leaves an awful lot of countries we’d like to recruit,” Van Oudenaren said.
The project also helps countries with limited digitization capacity contribute. The World Digital Library has established digitization centers in Baghdad, Cairo and Kampala, Uganda.
“We try to use the World Digital Library as a vehicle to help developing-country institutions participate,” Van Oudenaren said. “We’d like to do more of that.”
Over the past few years, the World Digital Library has made steady improvements to the user interface: The site now features a better page viewer, for example, and full text search of both the metadata and the English, Arabic and French books in the collection.
A major upgrade also is planned for later this year. The World Digital Library will relaunch as a beta site with a redesigned interface, interactive maps, and thematic timelines and in a form more user-friendly for mobile devices.
The mission, however, will remain the same as the one Billington first put forward nine years ago: making available the cultural treasures of the world and putting them online for free for educators, scholars and the public.
“It’s been wonderful to show all this great cultural material to the world,” Van Oudenaren said. “People have fascinating things. You just don’t know what’s out there until you start bringing it together. “It’s been a huge ambassador on the part of the Library.”