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World Digital Library Project Announced, Backed By Library Of Congress & Google

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The United States Library of Congress has announced the creation of the World Digital Library today, a project that's also just received its first $3 million in funding from Google.

The concept behind the WDL is to use public and private money to create a virtual library giving anyone access to the world's "rare and unique cultural materials," according to a joint press release about the project from the Library of Congress and Google. Google is only the first of what's hoped will be many donors.

The plan will expand upon work already done for the American Memory Project, a Library of Congress effort that has been digitizing American documents, images, sound recordings and more. The collection now contains more than 10 million items that can be searched or browsed as a whole or via often powerful specialized search interfaces available via each collection.

The World Digital Library is intended to go well beyond American material, however. It aims to be a repository of one-of-a-kind collections from nations around the world, a much expanded version of the Global Gateway digital library site that the Library of Congress maintains in partnership with other national libraries such as those of Russia, Spain, Brazil, France and The Netherlands.

The first step of the WDL will be to work out technological issues on how to digitize the content, establish standards and create a roadmap for progress. Resources needed for such an undertaking will also be identified. The Library of Congress already has experience in digitization through the two aforementioned programs. In addition, it has done pilot projects with a number of companies, including Google.

Over the past year, Google has digitized about 5,000 public domain books from the Library of Congress, material that may ultimately end up in Google Book Search, though it's not currently listed there yet. Google will continue scanning public domain books from the Library of Congress Law Library. Google said it's too early to tell if any of the scanning work it has already done will end up in the WDL.

As for the content included in the WDL, the Library of Congress plans to draw from its own resources as part of the effort. More than half the books the library holds are in languages other than English. Only public domain material or material with special permission granted will be placed in the WDL, the library says. The library also hopes the WDL will grow content from other sources, by offering up a plan allowing others to contribute.

So how much will the project cost overall? That's part of the initial planning that's underway, said Guy Lamolinara, spokesperson for the Library of Congress. When will a full plan be ready? There's no timeline for that or for when actual digitization will begin other than "as quickly as possible," Lamolinara said.

Oddly, despite being dubbed a "World Digital Library," the project is currently an American-only effort. However, that's something the Library of Congress hopes will change.

The idea comes from Librarian of Congress Dr. James Billington, who proposed the concept of a World Digital Library at a June 2005 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization meeting in Washington DC. We've posted a copy of his speech here.

After the initial plan is in place, the Library of Congress will work to seek international partners and hopes the UNESCO organization itself will become part of the WDL, Lamolinara said.

While yet another move to digitize works is to be applauded, it adds to an already crowded field of projects underway. To name only a few:

What might be better than all these independent and potentially rival efforts would be true worldwide cooperation, to prevent duplication of efforts or actually create standard that everyone really will back.

Google, when asked if yet another project might just add to potential chaos, said the point of the WDL is "to explore this issue and create solutions."

And what about the Open Content Alliance, which has a goal very similar to that of the WDL. Will Google be joining the OCA?

"We are supportive of efforts to make books more accessible," said spokesperson Nate Tyler.

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