The World Digital Library is a superb collection of important cultural material from around the world that would have been inaccessible prior to advances in digital imaging. The cultural material represented (art, written documents, maps, etc.) is valuable public sector information that often represents significant historical events of importance to the identities of various cultural groups. The WDL should be commended for its inclusion of diverse objects from different cultures in several languages, for building bridges between different institutions and cultures through this aggregation, and by providing access to objects that may otherwise be difficult to visit for casual users as well as scholarly researchers to peruse in an attractive interface with easy search mechanisms.
Aside from the access offered by the WDL, the digitization of this material means these objects can also be preserved in a surrogate digital form for future examination and growth. This is of the utmost importance as many of these items may be under threat due to environmental conditions, age, and sometimes political and social instability. The WDL includes in its ongoing goals the creation of digitizing centers to process more artifacts for digital inclusion.
Limitations, however, exist, particularly in terms of the library’s policies. For instance, the selection of material to be included is discerning, but there should be more transparent responsibility for each selection, so that we can be assured that all cultures are being represented fairly. Similarly, a Euro-centric bias must be consciously avoided in the choice of items and institutions included. Furthermore, the accompanying metadata of these objects must be carefully created to gain trust in a variety of world cultures. The licensing and re-use permissions are vital and vary dramatically for each institution and collection, and this should be made more consistent. The WDL, moreover, needs to make a greater effort to include the digital artifacts and metadata stored on their website into larger efforts of linked open data. Such actions would greatly support the library’s mission to reach and educate many more users.
Within the developing world, the WDL has the potential to be utilized as a resource to preserve and make accessible indigenous heritage often ignored by ‘official’ histories. This goal, however, has yet to be achieved. Many developing countries do not have the resources or infrastructure to support digitization projects and, consequently, they rarely have a voice in such processes. Perhaps future generations of users and developers will devise methods for addressing the needs of developing countries.
In order for the WDL to achieve its mission and do justice to the material it houses, it is suggested that the library: 1) support more outreach efforts by utilizing linked open data methodology and embracing social media strategies on the web; 2) provide methods for the re-use of material and make legal restrictions better known and understood to users; 3) make sure the library has a sustainable financial plan for the future, including increased fundraising for staff, training, hardware, and software in developing countries (the library is relatively young and small and to flourish it requires a more robust collection); and 4) invest in and promote the building of digital heritage in developing countries.
As a case study for examining cultural heritage as PSI, the World Digital Library is an important example not only as a pioneering project but also as one that has great potential for growth and expansion in both developed and developing countries. This project has already faced challenges of global sharing and communication and hopefully will continue to transcend physical boundaries, working to include more diverse content from a wider range of contributors and reaching an even wider audience.