A world of free knowledge

Ann Okerson, head of Yale University’s Collections, talks about the recent launch of the World Digital Library

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By  Vineetha Menon Published  April 30, 2009

We’re living in times when accessing knowledge means just connecting to the internet. After all, typing questions onto the trusty Google search bar has become second nature for most people, though just a little over a decade ago the search giant didn’t even exist.

Now comes the news that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the US Library of Congress have launched the World Digital Library (WDL) – an initiative that provides free and unrestricted public access to historical manuscripts, maps, books, films, photographs and sound recordings.

In the past access to these materials would’ve been available only to a select few but now anyone with an internet connection can log on to the site – www.wdl.org – and take an in-depth look at the past that’s shaped our present.

The WDL, which was launched on April 21st, was the brainchild of US librarian of Congress James H. Billington who in 2005 remarked that such a project could "have the salutary effect of bringing people together by celebrating the depth and uniqueness of different cultures in a single global undertaking.”

While it might sound like yet another grandiose project with the aim of promoting ‘understanding’, how many others can boast the support of organisations, libraries and archives around the world?

The Yale University Library, one of 32 partner institutions for the initiative that also includes Google, have contributed historical gems such as William Clark's 1810 map of North America and one of three manuscript copies of Ferdinand Magellan's journal from his voyage around the world in 1522.

“The philosophy of librarians and the reason for existence of libraries is to share information as broadly as possible. Technology is enabling us to meet our access goals far more broadly and we think this is wonderful,” Ann Okerson, head of Yale University’s Collections and International Programs, told itp.net.

While there is a focus on more historical than contemporary material on WDL, Okerson explains that content must fulfil the criteria of being both interesting and important. For example, the Declaration of Independence signed in 1776 would be important for the US but any new declaration or constitution for an emerging country would also make its way onto the site.

Despite the site going live only this month, it’s already garnered a lot of attention around the world. While official statistics are not presently available, Okerson heard that the launch in Paris generated a huge volume of traffic – “something like several hundred thousand viewings last week.”

The World Digital Library functions in seven languages - Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and even Arabic. There is strong support from the Arab World for the WDL with The Qatar Foundation contributing $3 million to the cause and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia donating $1 million to support the distribution of manuscripts and other materials that relate to science in the Arab and Islamic worlds.

According to Okerson, there’s no limit on the expertise, financial support or content that can be offered, but there are certain technical restrictions that might be a factor.

“There are many libraries currently queued up to join the project, and there are many other libraries in, for example, developing countries, that we would all like to see as participants,” she revealed, adding that it means “there will be a lot more additional content to review and load – and I imagine the technical crews at LC will have to develop some kinds of protocols and guidelines or else they will be completely swamped.”

With so many eager to back the project the WDL will probably live up to its high ambitions but also begs the question – will it eventually replace physical libraries altogether in the near future? Okerson tackled that difficult one head on.

“Gradually, more and more newly created material is appearing in digital form, on the internet and via media such as the DVD. Some of the new material has no print equivalent at all. Soon, in certain fields of study, we will be getting to the point that: if it's not on the internet, it doesn't exist.”

“However, there are many purposes for which print is still preferred and with our older, special collections, there is much value in the artefact itself - we can handle an item, engage with it, exercise one's imagination, and create scholarship around topics such as history of books, of paper, binding and so on. I imagine that for a long time we will live in an environment with both print and electronic information sources,” Okerson mused.

“It's as if now ‘two kinds of libraries’ are starting to exist side by side – and now instead of building just the one type of library, we must also be responsible for the second type,” she concluded.

It’s one that will help write the next chapter of our history.

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