Checking Out Tomorrow's Library
In Paris, an International Working Group Shows Off the Prototype For a Multilingual 'Intellectual Cathedral' of Digitized Knowledge

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 ( http://www.worlddigitallibrary.org) 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.

The site "has an enormous educational potential," Billington said, noting that its content is being designed particularly with children in mind. "It has the capacity both to inspire respect for other cultures and their histories and stories, but at the same time to establish critical thinking."

The WDL is being developed by the Library of Congress in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which officials said would broaden the program's reach and appeal.

The general model for the WDL is the Library of Congress's National Digital Library Program, which was launched in the mid-1990s. That program's flagship is the American Memory Web site ( http://www.memory.loc.gov), which offers 11 million digital files culled from U.S. historical records -- from the Declaration of Independence and Civil War photographs to early Thomas Edison movies and recordings of interviews with former slaves.

Billington said the United States was offering its experiences in creating American Memory as a guide to help the 190 other member states of UNESCO explore and digitally archive their own national and cultural memories for the WDL. The site will be accessible in the six official languages of the United Nations (English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Arabic) plus Portuguese.

The WDL will begin offering content on its site in late 2008 or early 2009, Billington said, with the ability to "rapidly ramp up" as countries digitize their archives and make them available. The site will have a few hundred thousand items to begin with, officials said.

The Library of Congress holdings, which include millions of items from around the world, will form the backbone of the initial WDL collection, with other digital content provided by six other libraries, including the national libraries of Egypt, Brazil and Russia.

The start-up cost of American Memory was $60 million, about $45 million of which came from private sponsors. WDL officials could not estimate how much it would cost to fully fund the creation of their site, but they said they hoped much of the money would come from private sources. Google gave $3 million to launch the project and develop the prototype displayed Wednesday.

The United States has often been criticized, particularly here in France and in the developing world, for its dominance of the Internet and for the global spread of its culture. But WDL officials called the project an example of how the United States could use its vast resources and know-how to bridge those differences.

"This is the best counter to that view of the U.S. . . . muscling its way in and forcing other countries to do what it wants," said Serageldin, the Egyptian library head. "The Library of Congress is the biggest library in the world by far, and it has stretched out its hand to invite partners from all over the world to participate. This is a wonderful way to show how true U.S. leadership is being exercised by a great cultural institution and bringing about a wonderful reaction from everybody."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company