Published online 20 April 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.377

News: Q&A

Prepare to be digitized

The World Digital Library's director explains his vision.

John Van OudenarenJohn Van OudenarenUNESCO/Andrew Wheeler

A digital repository of some of the most important documents in world history was launched this week by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The World Digital Library makes maps, pictures, texts and other cultural artefacts freely available on the Internet. Nature News spoke to John Van Oudenaren, its director, about his future plans and science's place in the project.

What do you hope the impact of this library will be?

We have a number of objectives. We obviously want to build intercultural and international understanding. It is also an effort to get developing countries involved in digitizing their content and using digital content about themselves.

Then we have a broader educational mission. All cultural institutions have to be aware these days that young people especially get their information through electronic means. If you want them to acquire understanding about culture or science or the history of science you've got to bring it to them in an electronic manner.

1562 map of the New WorldThe World Digital Library's documents include this 1562 map of the New World, drawn by Diego Gutiérrez for the King of Spain.World Digital Library/Library of Congress

Are you expecting to get everything in the library eventually?

The name 'World Digital Library' can be misleading to some people, because it doesn't aspire to collect absolutely everything that's been digitized or born digital. What we want are significant, interesting and important cultural and historical documents.

'Documents' we're using in the sense of map, manuscript, book, film, sound recording. We want to get something about every culture, every civilization, every country in the world. We want to cover all time periods going from the most ancient times right up to the twentieth century.

When you start to think of it in those terms you probably will end up with a large number of documents, but the goal is not to push numbers for their own sake.

Could you give some examples of scientific works in the library?

We have an awful lot of material on explorers and botanists: people going into the Amazon and the Himalayas and discovering and classifying new plants and animals. The National Library of Sweden made available some notebooks from Carl Linnaeus that give a pretty interesting view of his development as a young scientist. We've got some pure curiosity-type things too, such as Albert Einstein's application to become an American citizen.

One of our points of focus is Arabic scientific manuscripts. The US Library of Congress [which worked with UNESCO to develop the World Digital Library] had an existing project with the National Library and Archives of Egypt, digitizing such manuscripts collected from the ninth century right up to the eighteenth century. That's an area where we will be adding a lot of material.

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How do you decide what merits inclusion?

We have a joint UNESCO–World Digital Library selection committee, which has produced certain guidelines. There are some pre-existing lists: UNESCO has a register called the Memory of the World, for example, which is a list of important documents judged to be significant for humanity as a whole. Most things on that list would be obvious candidates for inclusion.

Then there are the partner institutions themselves, such as national libraries. Generally speaking, when an institution says "we want to contribute something" they come forward with a great idea.

Down the road, I think we'll have to get this selection committee more formalized and have a more bureaucratic process to weed through selection. But up to this point it's not been too much of a challenge to get good interesting content.

Where do you see the library going from here?

We're going to add more content, obviously. We also need to add new partners.

Then we're very much focused on building a sustainable international online network, not just for distributing content but also for creating it. If we can push more of the work of cataloguing and describing and translating on a broad international web-based network, we can lower the costs and therefore increase the quantity of material in the World Digital Library.

Do you have any papers from Nature (or other scientific journals) in the library?

Not at the moment. 

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