WASHINGTON (AFP) — The world's biggest library, the US Library of Congress, has teamed up with UNESCO and libraries from around the globe in an ambitious project to digitize priceless cultural material and make it available on the Internet.
"When The World Digital Library is launched, and we're looking at late 2008 or early 2009, if you have a computer, you will be able to join the biggest library in the world," Library of Congress spokesman Guy Lamolinara told AFP.
"Membership will be free, and downloading will be free. We will work with public domain material so we won't have copyright issues," he said.
The World Digital Library was the brainchild of Librarian of Congress, James Billington, who attended the launch of a prototype website for the project in Paris this week.
"He first proposed this idea to UNESCO in June 2005. What Dr Billington wanted to do is bring countries together to contribute their own cultural materials to a global enterprise where they could be accessible all in one place and by multiple languages," Lamolinara said.
"The way it will work is if you click on Eygpt on a map, for instance, you'll bring up all the Egyptian items and you will be able to search those items in any of the seven languages that the World Digital Library will be available in," Lamolinara said.
Material on www.worlddigitallibrary.com will be available in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
"These will be 'real' translations, not those simultaneous ones you can get online."
The Library of Congress was a natural partner in the project in view of its "vast experience in digitizing material for the Internet -- we have more than 11 million items from the library already available online," Lamolinara said.
Although the Library of Congress will supply most of the material for the digital library in its early stages, it will be entirely independent of the Library of Congress's online resource, which receives more than 110 million hits a year.
Already, the National Library of Brazil, Egypt's Bibliotheca Alexandrina and National Library, France's Bibliotheque Nationale, and the National Library of Russia and Russian State Library have signed up as partners in the project, and Billington is working to bring more libraries on board.
"The Bibliotheque Nationale has been a partner of the Library of Congress in a previous project called the Global Gateway, which was also Dr Billington's idea. This World Digital Library is in some ways an expansion of that," Lamolinara said.
The World Digital Library is also a continuation of UNESCO's Memory of the World program, which seeks to preserve documentary heritage, the UN cultural organization said on its website.
A similar, but more controversial, project by search engine Google to digitize the world's books was initiated in 2004 with the aim of scanning every literary work into digital format and making them available online.
That project has partnerships with the New York Public Library and major universities such as Harvard, Oxford, Complutense of Madrid and the University of California to add their collections to its virtual book shelves.
Google also has a hand in the World Digital Library, having provided three million dollars in "seed money" to get the gargantuan Internet project off the ground.
Google became involved out of "enlightened self-interest," Lamolinara said.
"Google is very interested in seeing information distributed online and this is one way for them to promote that."
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