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A Library for The New World

By James H. Billington
Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Digitized, instant communication is the great technological revolution of our time. It has streamlined business and delivered more information more quickly to more people than ever. And it has accelerated basic and applied research. Both the problems and the researchers who work on them are scattered around the world, but they come together in a common focus on the Internet.

Yet we must acknowledge that no new technology will by itself bring harmony or justice to the world -- let alone transform the intractable orneriness of human nature. We are discovering that deep conflict between cultures is fired up rather than cooled down by this revolution in communications. Whenever new technology brings different peoples suddenly into closer contact with one another, it seems to create a psychological need for the different peoples to define -- and even aggressively assert -- what is distinctive about their cultures. This and America's rejoining of UNESCO embolden me to suggest that the time may be right for our country's delegation to consider introducing to the world body a proposal for the cooperative building of a World Digital Library. This would offer the promise of bringing people closer together by celebrating the depth and uniqueness of different cultures in a single global undertaking.

Outlines for such a library are suggested by our 15-year experience with digital activity at the Library of Congress and by activities in other institutions here and abroad. The Library of Congress began its free online library with a collection of Americana we call American Memory. It was designed to help educators provide deeper understanding and more stimulating learning experiences for students. With funding from private and public sources, we provide 10 million unique primary materials from our own collections and those of our partners: manuscripts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln; Civil War photographs; the earliest movies of Thomas Edison; and thousands of maps, cartoons and other items.

American Memory added materials from 33 other U.S. repositories, and in the past five years the Library of Congress launched bilingual, binational digitization projects with Russia, Brazil, Spain, France and the Netherlands. All of these sites provide one-of-a-kind manuscript and multimedia material free to users worldwide. Our most recent agreement, with the National Library of Egypt, opens up the prospect of a more globally inclusive World Digital Library that would create for other cultures the documentary record of their distinctive achievements.

Google Inc. has agreed to be the first donor, with $3 million, in a public-private partnership to fund this initiative. The Library of Congress will seek other philanthropic contributors to assist in this important effort to harness technology to bring scattered primary materials of the varied cultures into consolidated Web sites for each culture. Such a project would be created primarily with and by the people of the respective regions. But because the Internet is by definition international, and because cultural materials have a special human appeal that transcends politics, there is enormous potential for increasing transcultural understanding.

Libraries are inherently islands of freedom and antidotes to fanaticism. They are temples of pluralism where books that contradict one another stand peacefully side by side just as intellectual antagonists work peacefully next to each other in reading rooms. It is legitimate and in our nation's interest that the new technology be used internationally, both by the private sector to promote economic enterprise and by the public sector to promote democratic institutions. But it is also necessary that America have a more inclusive foreign cultural policy -- and not just to blunt charges that we are insensitive cultural imperialists. We have an opportunity and an obligation to form a private-public partnership to use this new technology to celebrate the cultural variety of the world.

Through a World Digital Library, the rich store of the world's culture could be provided in a form more universally accessible than ever before. An American partnership in promoting such a project for UNESCO would show how we are helping other people recover distinctive elements of their cultures through a shared enterprise that may also help them discover more about the experience of our own and other free cultures.

The writer is librarian of Congress.

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