Checking Out Tomorrow's Library

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By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 18, 2007

PARIS, Oct. 17 -- As ideas go, they don't come much bigger: Digitize the accumulated wisdom of humankind, catalogue it, and offer it for free on the Internet in seven languages.

The first phase of that simple yet outlandishly ambitious dream is about a year away from being realized, according to a group of international librarians, computer technicians and U.N. officials who unveiled a prototype for the project, called the World Digital Library, in Paris on Wednesday.

Its creators see it as the ultimate multilingual, multicultural tool for researching and retrieving information about knowledge and creativity from any era or place. The WDL Web site ( will provide access to original documents, films, maps, photographs, manuscripts, musical scores and recordings, architectural drawings and other primary resources through a variety of search methods.

"The capacity to search in the various ways that will be possible in the World Digital Library will promote all kinds of cross-cultural perspectives and understanding," said James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress, who proposed the project two years ago. The ability to cross-reference information pulled from "the deep memories" of cultures is "an exciting frontier possibility for the world," he said in an interview.

"In essence, what they are doing is building an intellectual cathedral, and it may never get finished," said Paul Saffo, a long-time Silicon Valley technology forecaster. "But this is a good effort even if it fails, because it is going to inspire a lot of other efforts, and if it succeeds it will be a wonderful resource."

"The challenges here aren't technological," Saffo said. Financial hurdles might be considerable, and the project could be criticized as too grandiose, or its model might be considered too closed. But all those problems will probably be resolved, he said. "For me, the issue is the will to make it happen. The people involved in this -- will they really see this through?"

With entrenched interests starting to gain control of the Internet, he added, "it seems like the right thing at the right time, and the most important thing is that we try to do it."

The prototype introduced Wednesday allowed searches by time, geographical location, topic and format, with the ability to narrow results by limiting them to books, photographs, movies or recordings. For written materials, the same content was simultaneously available in seven languages, and expert analysis by site "curators" was either translated or available in subtitles.

"If you really, truly want to understand and respect other cultures, you have to be able to access their materials in their own languages," said Ismail Serageldin, head of Egypt's Bibliotheca Alexandrina, one of the partners in the project. A key goal of the WDL is to make the site user-friendly and widely available, he said, to help break down the digital divide between rich and poor countries.

The different search techniques permit a user to retrieve information for certain years and countries, so that in addition to being able to browse the collected knowledge of the world in the 1400s, for instance, a user could also limit a search to a topic such as art in Egypt and China in the 3rd century B.C.

Similarly, a user could specify a medium -- for example, only photographs from New York and Paris in the 1920s.

"The memory of different cultures is preserved in different ways," Billington explained. "This is an attempt to take the defining primary documents of a culture" and make them interactive with other cultures, he said.

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