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Launching the World Digital Library

On the 21st April, 2009 - UNESCO and 32 partner institutions, including Bibliotheca Alexandrina launched the World Digital Library, a Web site that features unique cultural materials from libraries and archives from around the world. The site includes manuscripts, maps, rare books, films, sound recordings, prints and photographs. It provides unrestricted public access, free of charge, to this material.

The launch took place at UNESCO Headquarters at an event co-hosted by UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura and U.S. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.

Mr Billington first proposed the creation of a World Digital Library (WDL) to UNESCO in 2005, remarking that such a project could “have the salutary effect of bringing people together by celebrating the depth and uniqueness of different cultures in a single global undertaking.” Mr Matsuura welcomed the proposal as a “great initiative that will help to bridge the knowledge divide, promote mutual understanding and foster cultural and linguistic diversity.”

In 2007, the Library of the Congress asked for Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s technical assistance, and an agreement was signed between both parties outlining their collaboration to develop this huge project. Accordingly, they worked together on the design and implementation of the database, search engine and interface for the project. In addition, Bibliotheca Alexandrina contributed its particular expertise in the search and display of Arabic texts.

Moreover, Bibliotheca Alexandrina has enriched the content of the WDL with a digitized copy of the valuable, Description de l’Egypte, a work of scientific observation carried out by French scholars during Napoleon''''''''''''''''s military foray into Egypt in 1798. The whole 20 volumes of text and plates were digitized in 2007 at Bibliotheca Alexandrina‘s premises.

The WDL functions in seven languages – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish – and includes content in more than forty languages. Browse and search features facilitate cross-cultural and cross-temporal exploration on the site. Descriptions of each item and videos, with expert curators speaking about selected items, provide context for users and are intended to spark curiosity and encourage both students and the general public to learn more about the cultural heritage of all countries.

Institutions contributing to the WDL include national libraries and cultural and educational institutions in Brazil, Egypt, China, France, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Qatar, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, Sweden, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“UNESCO welcomes the creation of the World Digital Library which reflects the values and priorities of our Organization,” Mr Matsuura declared. “WDL offers an invaluable platform for the free flow of information, for international solidarity, for the celebration of cultural diversity and for the building of inclusive knowledge societies. With projects like the Digital Library, the cultural and societal potential of digital technologies come into their own.”

“We are honoured to be working with so many great libraries in this venture,” said Mr Billington, “and thankful for the strong support that UNESCO has given to this project. What we launched today is a first step. We look forward to seeing this project realize its ambition to bring people together, deepen our understanding of each other, and help electronically oriented young people enjoy what is best in traditional culture, using the new media.

Partners of this tremendous venture have all confirmed the important role that World Digital Library plays in the appreciation of other cultures and nations and in bringing together different countries and peoples in mutual understanding and enrichment. They believe that the creation of the World Digital Library has emphasized the spirit of equality and open understanding between nations.

The World Digital Library showcases cultural treasures from all over the world that include; Arabic scientific manuscripts from the National Library and Archives of Egypt; early photographs of Latin America from the National Library of Brazil; the Hyakumanto darani, a publication from the year 764 from the National Diet Library of Japan; the famous 13th century “Devil’s Bible” from the National Library of Sweden; and works of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish calligraphy from the collections of the U.S. Library of Congress.

This project is considered an open channel of cultural and intellectual understanding between peoples of the world in today’s language- the Internet.