- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Four years ago, James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, had the idea of making the world’s cultural treasures - rare books, manuscripts, maps, drawings, films, sound recordings and the like - easily accessible through a Web site.

That dream drew closer to reality Tuesday when the World Digital Library (www.wdl.org) was launched to provide free public access to about 1,200 artifacts.

Contributing to the digitized information site are 26 institutions from 19 countries, mostly national and university libraries. They include the Iraqi National Library and Archives as well as UNESCO, which helped launch the more than $10 million archival project.

Among the esoteric international documents available on the Web site are an Arab astronomy book from the 15th century, drawings of the African captives from the slave ship Amistad and the first map to use the word “America.”

The model for the digital archive was developed initially in 2007 by the Library of Congress, UNESCO and five institutions, including the Russian State Library. Google Inc. helped fund the development of the prototype with a $3 million contribution.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions was consulted on the design and guidelines for selecting materials for the digital library.

“We believe that the site has material interesting to everybody, including researchers, lifelong learners, students, teachers and librarians,” says spokeswoman Jennifer Gavin of the Library of Congress, which maintains the site. “It allows cross-comparisons of cultures at any moment in history.”

Historic documents are presented in their original languages, but the digital library can only be searched in seven: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.

Miss Gavin says the World Digital Library is partially modeled on the Library of Congress’ Web site, American Memory, launched in the 1990s.

“We now have 15 million documents and objects that are U.S.-based on that site,” she says. “We feel that with new membership added to the new digital library, it’s not too far-fetched to say we’ll have those same numbers in a short period of time.”

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