WASHINGTON - WHEN the World Digital Library goes live on Tuesday a former US professor's vision of fostering global understanding by making cultural treasures accessible to a huge audience takes a leap forward.
'This is a way of stimulating people to think about the interaction of cultures,' James Billington, who has headed the US Library of Congress since 1987, told AFP days before the launch of the ambitious online library.
'We hope it will increase international understanding and also increase the curiosity of the world we live in about cultural achievements of humanity.
'And the beauty of this whole system is that it doesn't prejudge who it's for. It's for everyone,' said Mr Billington.
He pitched the project to global partners when the United States rejoined the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) in 2003 after a nearly 20-year absence.
'I suggested that we set up a world digital library, and that we do it in all languages of the United Nations - Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish,' Mr Billington said.
He drew on the positive experiences of the 209-year-old US Library of Congress in digitising the tens of millions of items it holds.
'Putting together our national digital library taught us that new technology is a wonderful way to get together old cultural and historical primary documents, of which there is very often only one copy, and make them accessible to everyone,' Mr Billington said.
The site that will go live on Tuesday at www.wdl.org is based on a prototype presented to Unesco officials at the organisation's Paris headquarters in late 2007.
'If you click on one geographic cluster, such as Europe, you get all the content about Europe,' Michelle Rago, technical director for the global online reference tool, told AFP. 'If you're interested in learning more, you go to an item and get a detailed page,' she said.
Tens of thousands of images and pages of information have been digitised and translated for the site's debut. Twenty-six partners in 19 countries, including the national libraries of Egypt, France, Iraq and Mexico, have contributed to the library. -- AFP