Reviewed March 2015
Jacqueline L. Protka, Reference Librarian for Interlibrary Loan
National Gallery of Art

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World Digital Library
(WDL) is a project of the Library of Congress and the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), with contributions from international partner institutions, to digitize and distribute on the web treasures of world cultural heritage. Featuring just over 11,000 rare books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, journals, prints and photographs, sound recordings, and films dating 1200 B.C.E to 2000 C.E., the WDL is small for a resource claiming to be the world’s digital library. It earns this designation by succeeding in its mission to increase multilingual content on the web and promote intercultural understanding through a sophisticated user interface.

Developed from the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, the WDL collection includes materials from every UN member state (193) in over 100 languages, including endangered languages such as Sinoa, spoken today by approximately 550 people in Colombia and Ecuador. To ensure global coverage, the WDL has provided institutions in Brazil, Russia, Egypt, Iraq, and Uganda with training, equipment, and financial support to capture digital content. In keeping with WDL’s polyglot agenda, subject specialists translate site navigation and object metadata into the six official languages of the UN as well as Portuguese.

Students to scholars will find value in this visually rich collection. Holdings range from historical objects well-known to Western audiences, such as Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses; to Japanese political cartoons of the Russo-Japanese War; a bilingual dictionary translating the Andes language Aymara to Spanish; nineteen issues of Layla (1923-1925), the first women’s magazine published in Iraq; ornamental details of Islamic architecture in the six-volume Antiquities of Samarkand; documentary photography of carnivale in Bolivia or a camel solider in Sudan; and a sound recording of an Omaha Pow-Wow Princess Song. world digital library 03

The “Explore” menu offers the best entry point to the collection. One can browse by place, time period, topic, type of item (e.g., books, maps, etc.), language, or institution. Keyword search results are ambiguously ranked, but one can narrow results through the same facets noted above. These facets facilitate comparisons and contrasts between cultures and time periods. For example, a user could search the term onion domes, then compare regional differences of this architectural feature across areas of Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. Searching follows the selected language interface, so results will change when one switches from, say, English to French. Full text searching is only available in an object’s original language.

In addition to the Explore menu, the WDL features four Timelines and five Interactive Maps highlighting select object sets. For example, “Illuminated Manuscripts from Europe,” treated in both a timeline and a geo-locating map, provides incredibly helpful context to its topic. The fourth entry point, Themes, feels the most undeveloped as only one theme exists, offering an overview of “Arabic and Islamic Science and Its Influence on the Western Scientific Tradition” through a curated collection within the WDL.

Each item-level record includes a description of the object and its importance, written for a general audience. The object is geo-located (although sometimes the reference points to the item’s repository institution and not its place of origin), and linked to related items in the WDL. For example, a mid-17th century woodblock edition of Murasaki Shibuku’s Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), is described as the first great novel, geo-located to Japan, and related to a Collection of Japanese Paintings in the ukiyo-e genre which depicts scenes from the novel. A text-to-speech conversion will read the item page, aiding accessibility. High-quality, color images, included for every item, can be viewed full screen, zoomed, and rotated. Most items can be downloaded as a 1498 x 1024 pixel PNG or PDF for multipage items. Records can be shared via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

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The WDL is an ongoing project and as partner institutions identify new content, this resource will only grow in importance, particularly as so many cultural objects today are lost to war and terrorism in select areas of the world. Indeed, this is a critical collection and while not as comprehensive in scope as Google Books or HathiTrust, it brings focus and context to previously underexposed world treasures.


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