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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > Bureau of International Organization Affairs > U.S. National Commission for UNESCO > Meetings and Reports > 2005 U.S. National Commission for UNESCO Annual Conference

A View of the Digital World Library

U.S. National Commission for UNESCO Annual Conference
Georgetown University, Washington, DC

Opening Plenary Address by Dr. James Billington
Librarian of Congress
June 6, 2005

The remarks Iíve heard today have been in my view, perhaps not in yours, very reinforcing of the basic message that I wanted to convey, because what I've heard is I think also, by the way, illustrative of the variety of talents that can uniquely come together for an enterprise like this with an international outreach. So I've been very exhilarated by this discussion.

What I'm going to do is something different, and that is to make a very specific proposal. And before I make it, let me suggest that it will build on things that almost everybody has said, that the big problems are across sectors, that we should think of something that affects as many of these sectors as possible, because dividing it up into five different areas when it's such a small amount, as Mr. Marburger reminded us, could disperse it.

Second of all, something that's catalytic. Third of all, something that will fundamentally affect education, because most parts of the world that we have to worry about are overwhelmingly young societies with overwhelmingly inadequate educational facilities, and education in a sense affects everything.

Finally, it could engage, as our last speaker eloquently reminded us, the dynamism of the private sector as well as the government and could properly use the strengths that each of them brings to bear.

It could get financial and philanthropic support from the least philanthropic, per dollar earned, part of America, namely Sillywood, which is the combination of Silicone and Hollywood. And finally, and this is underlying all we're saying, it could really give a fresh start, a new image, a sense of dynamism rather than a sense of a kind of weary sparring among too many countries arguing about too little money. It could give a new image to UNESCO and be fundamental in importance: the psychological, the motivational importance of the cultural, artistic, scientific, the whole world -- the Germans had the right word for it, Geist -- which combines mind and spirit.

Okay. Perhaps I'm telling you too much and what I'm going to say is going to be devoid of footnotes, because there are so many objections to what Iím about to say and there are so many problems raised internationally. I think they could be answered, and I would welcome the chance to discuss them, but let me just make the case for what I want to tentatively suggest.

Digitized -- and I'm going to read it, because otherwise I'll run over and you'll be resenting the fact that you were late for lunch -- digitized instant communication is the great technological revolution of our times.

It has streamlined business and shopping. It has delivered more information more quickly to more people and more places for more uses than ever before, and it has accelerated both basic and applied research and the natural sciences in very positive ways. Scientists can now create virtual communities that share data and ideas in important fields like medicine and the environment.

Both the problems and the researchers who work on those problems are very widely scattered around the world. There are more and more players. But they now come together and into a common focus on the world's many problems on the Worldwide Web. That's just a fact, although it's not yet a reality.

Now we need to acknowledge from the outset, however, that no new technology will by itself bring the world peace, harmony, or justice, let alone transform the intractable orneriness of the human condition.

The invention of the printing press with moveable type fanned religious wars in the 16th century. The onset of telegraphy, photography, and the power-driven printing press, all at the same time in the 19th century, created mass journalism that fulminated the nationalistic passions of world wars of the first half of the 20th century.

The arrival in the late 20th century of the instantaneous network, electronic global communication, may well have facilitated the targeted propaganda, the recruitment, and the two-way communication of transnational terrorist organizations undermining national states more than it has helped combat those tendencies.

And we are now discovering painfully and much too slowly, possibly even too late, that the deep conflict between cultures is in many ways being fired up, rather than cooled down, by this revolution in communications, as was precisely the case in the 16th and 19th centuries.

Whenever new technology suddenly brings different peoples together physically and makes them aware of certain commonalities, it seems simultaneously to create a compensatory psychological need, powerful and overriding of many other considerations, for these different peoples to define and even to assert with new aggressiveness what is unique and distinctive that must be defended and even fought for in their own historic cultures.

Now these realities and America's rejoining of UNESCO impel me to suggest that the time may be right for our country's delegation to consider introducing to the world body a proposal for the cooperative building of a world digital library.

This will be a new type of activity that could give UNESCO a fresh start and could provide win/win opportunities for everybody. It would hold out the promise of bringing people closer together precisely by celebrating the depth and uniqueness of different cultures in a single, shared global undertaking.

Now let me briefly suggest some outlines of what such a world digital library might look like. These are suggested by our 15-year experience with building a national digital library and with digital activity more broadly in the Library of Congress, but they are by no means limited or defined by them. Indeed, they're equally suggested by a gathered body of experience and of project activities in other institutions, both here and abroad.

The Library of Congress began its free online digital library with a collection of Americana, precisely the variety of America that Mr. Gioia was speaking of, which we called American Memory. We give it a singular word, American Memory, although it was the memories of very different people, and it was all primary documents in the words of the people and the pictures and the sounds of the people themselves. So, it was many memories, but it was one website.

It was designed to help educators provide deeper historical understanding and more stimulating learning experiences for their students in primary and secondary schools, specifically K through 12 target.

With funding from both private and public sources, we now provide some 10 million one-of-a-kind primary documents of American history and culture from our own collections -- manuscripts, papers of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Lincoln in their own hand, the Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady, the earliest movies ever made in the world by Thomas Edison, and a raft of historical maps, cartoons, photographs, recorded sound, and other items that can be zoomed in on and downloaded free of charge anywhere that there's access to the Internet.

We also brought into our American Memory website material from I think about 36 other American repositories. In the last five years we have gone international, recognizing that the Congress's library is a world resource. More than 60 percent of our print holdings are in languages other than English. We actively collect in 487 languages even today.

We have launched bilingual digitization projects to blend primary documents from our collection seamlessly with those from the national libraries of six other countries. We call these projects global gateways, and they so far have been focused first on Russia and Brazil, our two most advanced experiments on comparisons with the American experience as continent-size, multicultural frontier nations.

And secondly with Spain, France, and the Netherlands on their respective roles in opening up the Americas as a whole going into the modern age, and their experiences during that colonial period.

Now these sites are not just for us. They're being used in Barcelona as well as Boston, Moscow, Amsterdam, and Sao Paulo, as well as Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles.

The growing virtual library seems to appeal to all ages, even though it's specifically targeted for K through 12. Itís simple commentary, clear to understand, free of jargon, and in two languages. It is the crown jewel in the Libraryís multiform Web presence, which last year fielded 3.4 billion electronic transactions, with the greatest increase being from users all over the world who seem interested in the American Memory as well as in aspects of their own.

Now our most recent agreement, with the National Library of Egypt, opens up the prospect of moving towards a more ambitious and inclusive world library. It would seek to create for other cultures, languages, and nations the documentary record of their distinctive cultural achievements, aspirations, anguish -- all that goes and has gone into the works of art and science that characterize other parts of the world, the distinctive achievements, rather as we have tried to do for our own country with the ongoing American Memory project.

Such global gateway projects could begin but need not end at multinational efforts through UNESCO, or catalyzed by UNESCO in some way, to begin digitizing online memory projects for three great cultural regions, each of which lies beyond Europe and European culture and North Atlantic or South Atlantic culture, for that matter. Each involves more than one billion of the world's people, in each case with a strong, rising, younger population.

These would be Chinese East Asia, Indian South Asia, and the world of Islam stretching from Indonesia through Central and West Asia to North Africa. Such online cultural projects would have to be created primarily with and by the people of the respective regions themselves. And such projects should in no way preclude the parallel development or even the rival development of similar or different projects in other parts of the world's cultural mosaic. But because the Internet is by definition international, and because the primary documents of culture have a special human appeal that transcends politics and economics, there is an enormous potential for increasing trans-cultural understanding through the dialogue that the scholars and curators would have putting the memory packages together, and through the impact they can have on the thinking of globally curious and extremely multimedia-oriented younger people all over the world who increasingly have their own peer culture and their own peer expectations.

There are many different ways to structure and develop a world digital library for intercultural understanding and indeed to magnify it for scientific uses as well. There is already a great deal of material to work with that has been or is scheduled to be put online by other repositories both here and abroad.

Research libraries in the United States have described more than 600 public access collections in the list of accessible digital resources maintained by the Digital Library Federation. For instance, just to give you a couple of examples, the university libraries of Cornell and Michigan have pioneered in putting online the primary materials for American social history, particularly of the 19th century.

The university libraries of Chicago, Southern California, and Minnesota have all put online materials dealing with India, just to cite a few of many global examples. I think the cuneiform project was mentioned as an early one.

The Royal Dutch Library already provides a memory of the Netherlands project online, The British Library and the National Diet Library of Japan have both put online extensive materials from their own very rich national archives and cultures, as have a number of other libraries, archives, repositories, and museums. Museums, in particular, and other artistic and scientific institutions have activities in this area that would require yet another inventory and another speech.

The purpose of creating a special world digital library as a unitary project with diverse participants would be to attempt to provide a minimal, dependable online encyclopedia of the world's most important and interesting two-dimensional cultural objects, just as UNESCO has created an inventory of the world's most important three-dimension historical monuments.

But these virtual cultural objects will reach many more people. They can be taken to the people where they are. You don't have to come to see the monuments wherever they're located. It will be more difficult to reach agreement on what material should be included in the online inventory of culture and in the explanatory material appended to it. But there is far greater potential for this kind of sharing of cultural two-dimensional monuments, if you like, through electronic means, far greater potential for improving international understanding precisely because they can reach a far greater audience in the locations where they themselves live in the early years of their lives when most of the fundamental learning and basic attitudes are formed.

I find that a more recent commission that the Congress of the United States has given to the Library of Congress may help solve two key problems facing any attempt to integrate such a huge and diverse volume of material into a shared international enterprise.

Congress has mandated its library, the Library of Congress Ė and, incidentally, I should point out that the Congress of the United States has been and remains the largest single patron of a repository of the world's knowledge and of America's creativity in the history of the world. No Medicis, no royal societies, no dictators have ever attempted to gather together a collection of 130 million items, plus an enormous flood of digital storage and digital distribution, the way the Congress has in funding it within the legislative branch of government.

Anyhow, they have more recently mandated us to coordinate, plan, and/or begin implementing a distributed national program for archiving the Internet. Together with the National Science Foundation, we have brought in eight consortia involving 36 different American institutions. This consortium-shared enterprise is now well along in the daunting task of figuring out what to save from and how to preserve the vast flood of ephemeral, unfiltered material on the Worldwide Web.

The Library of Congress has already harvested 28 terabytes, and our initial partners are expected to gather an additional 60 terabytes of at-risk documentary material of digital content in the next few years.

Most importantly for the possibility of building a world digital library, we are working with all the stakeholders, private and public, local as well as federal, and even with some foreign participation, particularly by the British Library. But we're working with all these people, all the stakeholder communities, and finding answers to two crucial still unresolved questions that any such enterprise would face from the beginning.

One, how to strike the proper balance between protecting copyright and maximizing accessibility on the Internet? There is a committee deep at work, beginning to move towards some conclusions on this difficult problem.

The second problem, how to create metadata -- that is to say, roughly speaking, the online equivalent of cataloguing and the interoperability of systems that can create a unified and usable online library -- that will operate trans-culturally and multimedially.

If we can solve these problems -- and as I say, some of the best people in America are working on these together with us -- if we can solve these problems reasonably well at the national level, we should have a better chance of dealing with them internationally.

We have found that online exposure to primary cultural materials, which we've been using now for 15 years around this nation, creates an interactive searching experience that raises questions that can lead people in search of answers to questions that they themselves form. It's not really an introduction to memory. It's an introduction to critical thinking, because the search process itself is interactive. It requires a train of thought, not passive absorption of a bumper car of emotions, such as television gives you and even the Internet in its earliest phase gives you.

So it can lead people back into reading in search of answers to the fragmentary images they get on the Net, rather than away from reading, as the essentially passive experience of watching television essentially and generally does.

Libraries almost everywhere are an extraordinary resource, because by now they have fairly seamlessly integrated online with on-shelf materials. In so doing, libraries are exemplifying the general truth that new technologies usually end up supplementing rather than supplanting old ones.

Movies did not supplant plays, nor did television obliterate radio, and for the all-important technology of creative human thinking, computers can provide untold new quantities of information, but books can still keep alive indispensable, old qualities of discernment and articulation in understandable language.

By adding without subtracting from the world's knowledge and from the knowledge of the world's culture and of other cultures, humanity will have a better chance to pose the unimagined questions and to accept the unwelcome answers, and perhaps together to ripen knowledge that leads into the practical wisdom that may be necessary for the functioning of a democracy and may even be necessary for the survival of the planet.

Libraries are inherently islands of freedom and antidotes to fanaticism. They are temples of pluralism where books that contradict one another stand peacefully side-by-side on the shelves, just as intellectual antagonists work peacefully next to each other in reading rooms.

It is legitimate and in our national interest that the new electronic technology should still be used internationally by the private sector to promote profitable economic enterprise and by the public sector to promote democratic political institutions.

But it is also necessary, and that's why we are gathered here today, to have a far more proactive and inclusive foreign cultural policy, and not just in order to blunt charges that we are insensitive and culture imperialists, arguments that will be made in any case.

I believe that we have an opportunity and an obligation as a nation to form a private-public partnership to use this new technology that, after all, we invented, but whose usages we have not yet used to help celebrate the creative cultural variety of the world with which we are increasingly and inexorably inter-involved, and to reflect the reality of American inclusiveness itself.

Through a world digital library, the rich store of the world's culture that American institutions, libraries, and museums have preserved could be given back to the world free of charge and in a new form far more universally accessible than any forms that have preceded it.

I was very conscious of this, spending a week in Iran last year, invited I suppose in part because of the enormous culture that exists under the radar screen of one of the most repressive regimes possible -- a youth culture feeding on the Internet, deeply aware of things, forming a whole new psychic profile that cannot help but give us some hope even in difficult countries like that.

Beyond that, though, America itself is a world civilization that now uniquely includes in its citizenry significant numbers of people from all parts of the world. A private-public American partnership sponsoring such a project for UNESCO would dramatize the fact that we are helping other cultures recover distinctive elements of their own cultures through a shared enterprise that also may make it psychologically easier for them to discover that the knowledge and experience of our own and of other free, democratic, participatory, and accountable cultures might be of more benefit to their development and to their own well-being than they might otherwise be willing to admit even to themselves.

Thank you all very much.


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