The Internet age is eroding the art of calligraphy. Ironically, the same force that's behind the demise of the handwritten text is also curating a calligraphic fragment of Qur’anic verses dating back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
And that has been possible because of the just-launched World Digital Library (WDL)—an international public-private (Google’s $3 million and Microsoft’s $1 million) initiative sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—that is a repository of some of the planet’s most precious, rarest, obscurest “cultural treasures” from all seven continents.
The word “library” is quite a misnomer, really. It is, in essence, an online museum, for the site brings under one roof, not just old tomes, but also other articles such as journals, manuscripts, motions pictures, photographs, prints and sound recordings. The WDL currently contains 1,170 artifacts spanning a timeline of roughly 10,000 years from 8,000 B.C. to the present. Among its impressively eclectic collection are: the very first printed version of the U.S. Declaration of Independence (from 1776), one of the only 10,000 photolithographic reproductions of the Indian Constitution (from 1950), Maria Von Trapp’s (of the Sound of Music fame) U.S. citizenship papers submitted to a Vermont court (from 1944), a woodcut map showing the Holy Land as it was at the time of Jesus Christ (from 1585), a silent, black-and-white film capturing the docking of an immigrant-carrying argosy at Ellis Island (from 1906), the second edition of the Fables of Aesop (from 1479).
While little-known documents are easy to find at WDL, some well-known works are conspicuous by their absence. Mein Kampf—the two-volume autobiography, tainted by the notoriety of its author, Adolph Hitler—is one such work.
Another such effort at digitization is the Million Book Project or Universal Digital Library (UDL)—a transnational university-based project led by Carnegie Mellon University, Zhejiang University in China, the Indian Institute of Science in India and the Library at Alexandria in Egypt. Started three years earlier than the WDL—in 2002—its stated mission is to “preserve the world of literature” in the bits-and-bytes for “posterity.” To this effect, about 7,000 books are scanned daily by 1,000 workers globally. As of November 2007, 1.5 million books had been uploaded—less than 1 percent of all books in all languages published to date. More than 20 languages are represented among them. The U.S., China and India pitched in with cash contributions of $10 million each for the bibliographic venture.
Both the WDL and the Million Book Project have similar goals—(1) the preservation of humankind’s fragile cultural and literary heritage (2) allowing 24/7 free access to them (3) narrowing the Digital Divide within and between countries.
But unlike the UDL, the WDL “represents a shift in digital library projects from a focus on quantity for its own sake to quality.” That is evident in the site’s attractive design, easy navigability and options for size-adjustment, downloading content and sharing them on social networking sites. A user-friendly interface allows one to browse by the four criteria of (1) place (2) time (3) type of item (4) topic of interest (5) institution, with great ease.
The Million Book Project site however, isn’t quite as technically sophisticated. Not all the books are accessible. It states on its site: “We have scanned books that we can not display on our website. The reasons are numerous and very complicated.” One is that a sizable chunk of the books are protected by copyright.
No matter how arduous the labor and how challenging the task ahead, what is of consequence is that the wheels of a daunting enterprise have been set in motion. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. (Digital Journal)