World’s First Digital Museum Goes Online

Digital Journal, April 24, 2009.

The Internet is eroding the art of calligraphy.

Ironically, the same force that’s behind the demise of the handwritten text is also curating a calligraphic fragment of a Quranic verse, dating back to the time of Muhammad.

And that’s been possible because of the recently launched World Digital Library. An international public-private initiative (Google’s $3 million and Microsoft’s $1 million), sponsored by UNESCO, it’s a repository of some of the planet’s most precious, rarest, and obscurest “cultural treasures” from all seven continents.

The word “library” is quite a misnomer, really.

It’s, in essence, an online museum, for the site brings under one roof, not just old tomes, but also other articles such as journals, manuscripts, motions pictures, photographs, prints and sound recordings.

The W.D.L. currently contains 1,170 artifacts, spanning a timeline of roughly 10,000 years, from 8,000 B.C. to the present.

Among its impressively eclectic collection are:

  • The very first printed version of the U.S. Declaration of Independence from 1776.
  • One of the only 10,000 photolithographic reproductions of the Indian Constitution from 1950.
  • U.S. citizenship papers, submitted to the Vermont court in 1944, by Maria Von Trapp (of the “The Sound of Music” fame).
  • A woodcut map from 1585, showing the Holy Land as it was at the time of Jesus Christ.
  • A silent, black-and-white film, capturing the docking of an immigrant-carrying argosy at Ellis Island in 1906.
  • The second edition of the “Fables of Aesop” from 1479.

While little-known documents are easy to find at W.D.L., some well-known works are conspicuous by their absence. “Mein Kampf,” the two-volume autobiography, tainted by the notoriety of its author, Adolph Hitler, is one such work.

Another such effort at digitization is the Million Book Project or Universal Digital Library—a transnational, university-based project led by Carnegie Mellon University, Zhejiang University in China, the Indian Institute of Science in India, and the Library at Alexandria in Egypt.

Started three years before the W.D.L., in 2002, its stated mission is to “preserve the world of literature” in bits and bytes for “posterity.” To this effect, about 7,000 books are scanned daily by 1,000 workers globally.

As of November 2007, 1.5 million books had been uploaded, less than one percent of all books in all languages published to date. More than 20 languages are represented among them.

The U.S., China, and India pitched in with cash contributions of $10 million each for the bibliographic venture.

Both the W.D.L. and the Million Book Project have similar goals: (1) the preservation of humankind’s fragile cultural and literary heritage; (2) allowing 24/7 free access to them; and (3) narrowing the digital divide within and between countries.

But unlike the U.D.L., the W.D.L. “represents a shift in digital library projects from a focus on quantity for its own sake to quality.”

That is evident in the site’s attractive design, easy navigability, and options for size-adjustment, downloading content and sharing them on social networking sites.

A user-friendly interface allows one to browse by the five criteria of place, time, topic of interest, item, and institution with great ease.

The Million Book Project site, however, isn’t’ quite as technically sophisticated. Not all the books are accessible.

Its website states: “We have scanned books that we cannot display on our website. The reasons are numerous and very complicated.” One is that a sizable chunk of the books are protected by copyright.”

No matter how arduous the labor and how challenging the task ahead, what is of consequence is that the wheels of a daunting enterprise have been set in motion.

After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

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