A global digital library allowing scholars and cybersurfers to scroll through such unique works as the 13th-century "Devil's Bible" and rare photos from the Ottoman Empire was launched Tuesday.
Four years in the making, the World Digital Library went online (www.wdl.org), offering free access to hundreds of books, manuscripts, maps, photographs and sound and film recordings, all considered world treasures.
The state-of-the-art educational tool promotes cultural understanding by showcasing "primary materials that are both interesting and important," said James Billington, from the U.S. Library of Congress, who created the project.
The Web site operates in seven languages, with content in 40 languages, from mathematical texts in Arabic to the world's first novel, "The Tale of Genji," written in Japan in the 11th century.
"All of these materials have been vetted by curators and scholars so that they are dependable," Billington told a news conference at the Paris headquarters of UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency that shepherded the project.
A team from the Library of Congress in Washington developed the site with assistance from Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt.
Some 1,200 documents have been chosen for the initial phase, but the plan is to open up the library's doors and databases beyond the current 32 partner institutions from 19 countries.
"Part of the purpose is to bring together materials that have been widely scattered, into a single focus," Billington said. The Web site is open to everyone Ğ scholars, teachers, historians Ğ but much focus is placed on reaching young minds that are exposed to Internet material of questionable quality, he added. The content has been compiled from non-exclusive contributions from national libraries, many of which have put forward founding documents, including oracle bone script from China, the "Devil's Bible" from Sweden and Hyakumanto Darani, a publication from 764 in Japan.
Photographs of lost empires Ğ the Ottomans, tsarist Russia and imperial China Ğ are offered for perusal while searches through timelines allows users to compare cultural works from a given period across the globe.
France contributed the world's first film footage from the pioneering Lumiere brothers in the late 19th century, and there is also the first recording of La Marseillaise, the national anthem.
The World Digital Library is the third knowledge society to be launched on the Internet, after Google Book Search and the EU's new project, Europeana. Its content, however, is not limited to books, such as Google's Web site, and the Web site is more selective in its choice of content than Europeana by concentrating on documents of historical and cultural importance.
World Digital Library director John Van Oudenaren said the challenge was not finding content for the Web site but deploying the technical capacity necessary to digitize the content.
"Our problem right now is gearing up to handle large amounts of content," said Van Oudenaren. Major contributors to the World Digital Library are Brazil, Britain, China, France, Japan, Russia and the United States, with South Africa, Uganda and Mali putting up materials from Africa. The project received funding from private donors including Google, Microsoft and several philanthropic foundations.