The Library of Congress is launching a campaign today to create the World Digital Library, an online collection of rare books, manuscripts, maps, posters, stamps and other materials from its holdings and those of other national libraries that would be freely accessible for viewing by anyone, anywhere with Internet access.
This is the most ambitious international effort ever undertaken to put precious items of artistic, historical, and literary significance on the Internet so that people can learn about other cultures without traveling further than the nearest computer, according to James H. Billington, head of the Library of Congress.
Billington said his goal is to bring together materials from the United States and Europe with precious items from Islamic nations stretching from Indonesia through Central and West Africa, as well as important materials from collections in East and South Asia.
"We are aiming for a cooperative undertaking in which each culture can articulate its own cultural identity within a shared global undertaking," Billington said in an interview. "We will go as far as we can. The danger we all face is a clash of civilizations. This is the old dream of better international understanding. The dream is that this could make a contribution, particularly among young people brought up in the multimedia age."
Billington said he envisions the initiative as a public-private partnership. Yesterday, he said that the Library of Congress has accepted $3 million from Google Inc. as its first corporate contribution.
Google co-founder and President Sergey Brin said in an interview that he and Billington began discussions roughly one year ago about ways for the Library of Congress and Google to team up. Brin said he became intrigued after seeing a range of "beautiful" items in the Library of Congress collection during private meetings with Billington.
"To me, this is about preserving history and making it available to everyone," Brin said.
During the past year, Google has digitized about 5,000 books from the Library of Congress as part of a pilot project to refine the techniques to make copies of fragile books without damaging them. In the next phase of the project, Billington said Google will digitize books and other materials from the Library of Congress Law Library.
Earlier this fall, a group of publishers filed a lawsuit in New York against Google, alleging copyright infringement over the search engine's ongoing digitization of millions of library books from the collections of Stanford University, Harvard University, University of Michigan, Oxford University and the New York Public Library. Google is battling the publishers in court -- and also fighting a related class-action lawsuit filed by authors -- by arguing that its effort to scan all library books is legal and in the public interest.
Brin and Billington said Google would only digitize materials from the Library of Congress that are in the public domain and therefore not subject to copyright protection.
Brin said he will help raise additional private funds to finance the World Digital Library. Billington said the $3 million gift from Google will be used over the next few years to develop the details of the project and pay for global outreach.
"Working with UNESCO, we want to encourage other countries to make use of our experiences in developing their own digitization projects," Billington said.
Brin -- whose personal fortune exceeds $11 billion, mostly in Google stock -- said the corporate contribution is consistent with his company's goal of putting all of the world's information online and making it freely available. He also said that Google was learning much from the Library of Congress about the scanning of fragile materials that are hundreds of years old.
Yesterday, Allan Adler, vice president for legal and government affairs of the Association of American Publishers, said Google's $3 million contribution to the Library of Congress, and the company's pilot scanning projects there, are unlikely to raise any thorny legal issues.
"In all likelihood, the Library of Congress and Dr. Billington will be consulting closely with the U.S. Copyright Office housed in the Library of Congress," Adler said. "It is unlikely that publishers and authors and creators of other copyrighted works will have much to fear in this kind of project." Adler also expressed hope that Google and the publishers would resume talks and resolve their differences in an out-of-court agreement, rather than proceeding with costly litigation.
Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.