UNESCO and the U.S. Library of Congress will join forces to build a World Digital Library, following the signing of an agreement by Abdul Waheed Khan, UNESCO's assistant director-general for communication and information, and the librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on October 17, 2007.
In a press release, UNESCO explained that the World Digital Library initiative will digitize unique and rare materials from libraries and other cultural institutions around the world and make them available free of charge on the Internet. These materials include manuscripts, maps, books, musical scores, sound recordings, films, prints and photographs.
A prototype of the World Digital Library was presented and tested before delegates from 193 UNESCO Member States attending the recent UNESCO General Conference. The prototype was developed by the Library of Congress and UNESCO with five other partner institutions: Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the National Library of Egypt, the National Library of Brazil, the National Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library. The prototype functions in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish, the six official languages of the United Nations, as well as in Portuguese. It can be searched and browsed by place, time, topic, and contributing institution.
The press release notes that the World Digital Library initiative has been designed “to promote international and intercultural understanding, increase the quality and diversity of cultural content on the internet, and contribute to education and scholarship.”
“Libraries are key actors for ensuring universal access to information and building knowledge societies,” said UNESCO director-general, Koïchiro Matsuura. “We are very pleased to build on the excellent partnership that we have long enjoyed with the Library of Congress to work in innovative ways to preserve and make accessible the memory of the world.”
“We look forward to continuing and deepening our collaboration with UNESCO,” said Mr. Billington, “and to working with the organization and its staff to ensure that libraries, archives, and museums from around the world join with us in making their cultural treasures accessible online."
UNESCO noted that, under the terms of the agreement, the Library of Congress and UNESCO will cooperate in convening working groups of experts and other stakeholders to develop guidelines and technical specifications for the project, enlisting new partners, and securing support from private and public sources.
“A key aspect of the project is to build digital library capabilities in developing countries, so that all countries and all regions can participate and be represented in the World Digital Library,” said UNESCO.
In conclusion, the release mentioned that the project pursues work already undertaken by UNESCO's Memory of the World program, which seeks to preserve a documentary heritage that “(…) reflects the diversity of languages, peoples and cultures and is the mirror of the world and its memory”.