World Digital Library


In June of 2005 the United States Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, gave a speech to the United States National Commission for United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proposing the creation of a digital library for the world’s cultural heritage objects. From this speech came the development of the World Digital Library (WDL). The UNESCO’s Directorate for Communication and Information and the Library of Congress worked together to bring the experts of the world together in an “Expert Meeting” in December 2006.

The Experts Meeting 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 of Archives of Egypt, the National Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library – to develop and contribute to the 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 from more than forty countries (WDL, n.d. Background).

Following a successful demonstration of the WDL prototype, several libraries joined in developing a public, freely accessible version of the WDL. In April 2009, with contributions from twenty-six institutions, the WDL launched and included objects from every UNESCO member country, 19 total.

Today, the WDL, housed and maintained by the Library of Congress, has 173 partners. These contributors are mainly comprised of cultural institutions such as libraries, archives, museums and other institutions that are able to contribute cultural or historical content. The WDL partners also contribute “curatorial, cataloging, linguistic, and technical expertise.”(WDL, n.d.,Frequently Asked Questions) The WDL works with private sector institutions, companies, and foundations that provide financial support and contribute technology as well as the co-sponsorship of meeting and work groups. WDL does partner with private sector institutions, companies, and foundations to help such as co-sponsoring meetings or work groups, contributing technology or with financial support.

The WDL strives to make “available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world.” (WDL, n.d., Mission) The site acts as a digital portal, where partners can contribute historical and cultural primary sources such as “manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical scores, recordings, films, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings.”(WDL, n.d., This Site) Creating this digital portal allows all users such as “students, teachers, scholars, and the general public” (WDL, n.d., Frequently Asked Questions) to learn about, explore, study and enjoy different cultures from around the world.

Information can be accessed in a number of ways. Users can browse the library’s index according to place, time, topic, type of item, and institution. A keyword search is available in seven different languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish). Additionally, a geographic cluster map with a timeline offers an interactive way of accessing information stored on the site. The WDL also offers special features such as “advanced image-viewing and interpretive capabilities.” (WDL, n.d., This Site) Searches can also be narrowed according to facets. Facets, however, are dependent upon the users initial search. For example, when using the geographic cluster map to browse all items within Africa, the user will be given facets (place, time, topic additional subjects, type of item, language, and institution) to help narrow their search.

Digital libraries, such as the WDL, are accessed for various reasons. In providing accessible public sector information, the WDL has far-reaching potential to be effective and useful for general citizens and research communities. In the sections that follow, the reader will encounter sections that discuss the values and benefits of using the public sector information provided by the WDL, intellectual property and copyright policies associated with the website, and standards related to content creation, images, and metadata. This case study also offers a thorough examination of public sector information in the developing world, particularly in Africa and details the importance of survival strategies (preservation and access). The case study concludes with recommendations for making the WDL an even better resource, with suggestions for expansion in the developing world as well as for wider-reaching use and re-use policies.

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