Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Should UNESCO Promote the Development of a World Digital Library?

The most interesting idea discussed at this week's meeting of the U.S. National Committee for UNESCO was the creation of a World Digital Library that would be available worldwide via the Internet. The idea was proposed by James Billington, Librarian of Congress. Several of the subcommittees of the National Commission recommended that the Department of State further consider submit a proposal to UNESCO that it play a lead role in the creation of such a library.

The Library of Congress has created the “American Memory” website, which exemplifies many features of the proposed World Digital Library.

American Memory provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. It is a digital record of American history and creativity. These materials, from the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, chronicle historical events, people, places, and ideas that continue to shape America, serving the public as a resource for education and lifelong learning.

Currently, American Memory makes some ten million items available. Over the last 15 years, the Library of Congress has added some 100 complementary digital collections to that developed from its own materials. One of the important functions of the American Memory is to help teachers in the education of students, including those in primary school; it allows children to see images of original source materials. It also allows people from the United States and other nations to engage in independent, interactive, inquiry-based learning based on original source materials about America and its peoples.

The Library of Congress is also linking the world’s resources with America’s schools through its Global Gateway Initiative. This website includes collaborating digital libraries developed through collaborations between the Library of Congress and the national libraries of Russia, Brazil, Spain, France and the Netherlands.

With the intervention and support of UNESCO, it might well be possible to expand these models worldwide. Every country could create a national memory website, populated with digital versions of key source materials from its own history. Each nation could provide a gateway for its students and citizens. The gateways would be two directional, providing access to the world’s memory from within the country, and to the country’s memory to those in other nations.
This is a truly “big idea”. There would be important problems to be solved of technology, property rights, coordination, and indeed organization of the information so that it would be available to the users.

Among the international organizations, only UNESCO has a charter that would allow leadership in the development of the World Digital Library. Indeed, UNESCO has a Memory of the World project. It has long had programs supporting library development, and its Libraries Portal links to 160 digital libraries. UNESCO also has an existing e-Heritage program, which is leading through such initiatives as it Digital Heritage of the Silk Road project. UNESCO's programs in education, the sciences, culture and communication and information would all play roles in the conceptualization and development of a World Digital Library.

It should be fascinating to see the evolution of this idea, and the willingness of government, business, academia and civil society in the United States to support and encourage UNESCO in such efforts.

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