World Digital Library

Down through the ages Libraries and museums have existed to preserve and make available in one place the writings and art from our past. One of the major advantages humans have over other creatures on this earth is our ability to record and pass on the knowledge that we have learned.

While lower animals are forced to rely on instinct and knowledge gained from trial and error, they have no way to preserve and pass on that knowledge to future generations. Thus, each new generation is forced to start over from scratch which means that their species can never advance by themselves.

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World Digital Library Home Page

Recording Knowledge to Pass on to Our Descendants

Humans, on the other hand, are able to record and pass on their knowledge so that, instead of each human starting from scratch and having to learn everything from trial and error, they can study the record and absorb the knowledge of those who have gone before them and then expand their knowledge from there.

Language was our first tool and this allowed parents and others to transmit lessons from their memory to children who, in turn had to memorize this knowledge and, hopefully, add to it. Of course the preservation of this knowledge was limited to what people could remember and if the tribe was killed off by disease or other disaster their knowledge vanished with them.

The invention of writing allowed people to record their knowledge on media outside their minds, thus enabling it to survive even after the death of all in the tribe or culture. Of course, people wanting to learn this information had to travel far and wide to the locations where each recording was located. Also, while the material could outlive its human creators it could still be lost or accidentally / deliberately) destroyed. Even those items that survived, suffered a slow decay as age and the elements wore them down.

Engraving by Paul Revere of the Boston Massacre  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,  reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsca-01657])
Engraving by Paul Revere of the Boston Massacre (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsca-01657])
Portrait of George Washington printed and engraved by C.W. Peale (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division,  reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsca-17515])
Portrait of George Washington printed and engraved by C.W. Peale (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsca-17515])
World War I Canadian Poster calling on French Canadians to enlist and fight   (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-12727 ])
World War I Canadian Poster calling on French Canadians to enlist and fight (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-12727 ])
British WW I Poster raising funds for YWCA canteens and other assistance for soldiers at the front (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-11161])
British WW I Poster raising funds for YWCA canteens and other assistance for soldiers at the front (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-11161])
Australian World War I Recruiting Poster  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-12172])
Australian World War I Recruiting Poster (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-12172])

The Library at Alexandria, Egypt

Beginning in ancient times libraries and museums were created to make knowledge more assessable and to preserve books and other cultural artifacts. Rulers and other wealthy patrons began collecting and sometimes sharing their collections with scholars. One of the most famous libraries in the ancient world was the famous Library of Alexandria in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria.

The Library of Alexandria was sponsored by the Ptolemaic Rulers of Egypt and is thought to trace its roots to the time of the beginning of the rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in the third century BCand to have grown and endured until some time between the first and seventh centuries AD. The Library of Alexandria amassed a huge collection of books from all over the Mediterranean world. It also attracted scholars from all over the Mediterranean world and these scholars in residence added to the collection by writing more books. Among the fruits of the labor of these scholars at the Library of Alexandria was the development of the scientific method and other topics in science, math and philosophy that are still taught in schools today.

Great as it was, the library had two major shortcomings. The first being that scholars had to travel to Alexandria to have access to the books. Granted, by assembling such a huge collection in one place, the library saved scholars from having to travel to libraries all over the ancient world to access these books, so it was efficient in one sense. Its other shortcoming was the fact that it and its book collection were physical objects and thus were vulnerable to destructive physical forces especially war and it appears that the library's demise was due to the fact that the library was in the path of invading armies on more than one occasion.

The year 2002 saw the opening of a huge new library on the ground where the original Library of Alexandria once stood. Almost two millennia after the final destruction of the original Library of Alexandria a new library has taken its place.

The United Nations' Word Digital Library is Now Open

Of course, despite great advances in transportation and communication since the time of the original Library of Alexandria, people wishing to avail themselves of the collection at the new Library of Alexandria still have to travel to Alexandria, Egypt from other parts of the world.

Now, seven years after the opening of the new Library of Alexandria, we are witnessing the opening of a new, United Nations sponsored, library and museum, the World Digital Library, the access to which is as close to every person on Earth as the nearest computer with Internet access. Unlike other libraries, this library's entire collection consists of digitized copies of rare books, documents and artwork from all over the world. Not only is the library available to anyone via computer but everyone on earth is free to browse through these rare and fragile books and other materials without fear of ruining them. No matter what the effects of time, weather, war or other disasters befall the original books and other artifacts, the near exact digital copies will remain for current and future generations to view and use.

The current collection is relatively small but contains materials from all parts of the Earth, many of which are falling apart due to age with many being hundreds or even thousands of years old.

Simply browsing through the World Digital Library can be fascinating in itself but it can also be a handy research tool for Hubbers researching new Hubs.

One problem for Hubbers is copyright and reproduction rights.  Not only do copyright laws vary from nation to nation, but there is also the problem that even though some of the materials may have been produced centuries before any copyright laws existed, the libraries and museums that own the materials often hold rights that prevent people from freely copying and publishing the copies.  
Copying, of course is generally not a problem so long as it is for one's own use but publishing it can be illegal.  Also, in addition to rights that libraries and museums may have, the donors and heirs of donors who originally gave the materials to the libraries or museums often have restrictions upon their reproduction.  A final complication is that many of the articles lack clear information on the rights pages that accompany them and, instead of stating who, if any person or organization, has rights and whether or not copies can be made and published or who to contact to get permission, they simply state that the item may be subject to copyright and it is up to the user to find this out.
I spent over an hour browsing through the collection before I found the pictures that I have included with this Hub which clearly stated that they were in the public domain and could be reproduced and published freely.
Other than the copyright problem, this is a great site which is not only expected to grow in the future but which, even now, is a great place to visit as well as an excellent educational and research tool.

Additional World War I Posters

Austrian WW I poster showing little girl contributing coins to war bond effort  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-12198])
Austrian WW I poster showing little girl contributing coins to war bond effort (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-12198])
Canada WW I Poster seeking Bushmen and sawmill hands wanted. Join the 224th Canadian Forestry Battalion  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints &  Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-12676])
Canada WW I Poster seeking Bushmen and sawmill hands wanted. Join the 224th Canadian Forestry Battalion (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-12676])
U.S. WW I Propaganda poster showing Statute of Liberty in ruins (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints &  Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsca-18334])
U.S. WW I Propaganda poster showing Statute of Liberty in ruins (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsca-18334])
Austrian World War I poster seeking funds to help soldiers crippled by war (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints &  Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-11953])
Austrian World War I poster seeking funds to help soldiers crippled by war (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters,reproduction number,[LC-USZC4-11953])

Late 19th Century Photos from Book "Views of the Austro-Hungarian Empire"

Town of Jajce in Bosnia which sits next to the Waterfall of the Pliva which falls 100 feet from Lake Jezero into the Vrbas  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[ LC-DIG-ppmsc-09306])
Town of Jajce in Bosnia which sits next to the Waterfall of the Pliva which falls 100 feet from Lake Jezero into the Vrbas (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[ LC-DIG-ppmsc-09306])
Ring Street in Budapest, Hungry - photo taken between 1890-1900 (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsc-09476])
Ring Street in Budapest, Hungry - photo taken between 1890-1900 (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsc-09476])
Sarajevo, Looking Toward Alifakovak, Bosnia  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsc-09311])
Sarajevo, Looking Toward Alifakovak, Bosnia (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsc-09311])
Girl in traditional dress in Sarajevo,Bosnia in 1890s  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsc-09316 ])
Girl in traditional dress in Sarajevo,Bosnia in 1890s (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsc-09316 ])
Street scene in Turkish Quarter of Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1890s  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsc-09313])
Street scene in Turkish Quarter of Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1890s (Photo courtesy of U.S. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, reproduction number,[LC-DIG-ppmsc-09313])

Note on Photos

While all of the above photos and posters are found in the respective geographic areas they represent, all of the originals reside in the U.S. Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress is a major backer of the World Digital Library and has provided extensive expertise and support to the project.  This is understandable given that the Library of Congress has produced a huge digitial library of its own on the web where people can view the millions of books, pamphlets, photos, audio recordings, vidio recordings, historic documents, art, etc. that are in the Library's collection.  One no longer needs to travel to Washington, D.C. to view the treasurers in the Library of Congress.

The World Digital Library does contain digitized images of books and art that resides in libraries and museums throughout the world.  In additon to the items being displayed, many, but not all, contain video clips of the cureators explaining various aspects and significance of the items being displayed.

I used these particular photos because I was able to link back to the Library of Congress, where the original photos reside, from the World Digital Library site.  Once in the Library of Congress site I was able to obtain the copyright information and verify that all of these were in the public domain.  

I should point out that much of the material in the Library of Congress is either subject to copyright or its copyright status is unclear.  In the case of these photos, the accompanying copyright information clearly stated that they were in the public domain.  For many other articles the copyright owners are clearly stated and usually are accompanied by a comment at to who to contact for premission to reproduce them.  Unfortunately, the copyright information for many others is vague and essentially tell the viewer to use at their own risk.

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Comments 9 comments

nicomp profile image

nicomp 7 years ago from Ohio, USA

Fascinating hub. Thanks for the great tour.


sabbatha1 profile image

sabbatha1 7 years ago from patriciamccarty@rocketmail.com

This library is worth visiting. AWesome site. Thank you for all the info.


very good work 7 years ago

I have read your article and this is very good stuff for the history finders and others also. Thanks for this useful information.


Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

Chuck, thanks for the information. I'll check out that library soon. I am an avid library lover and have visited our local library evrey three weeks (or more often) since the age of 3. The destruction of the Library at Alexandria is probably the greatest loss of information, history, and culture to mankind - one of the world's worst tragedies.


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

Chuck— This is an awesome answer to my query. Wow! You are a learned individual and I need to read more of your writing. This library thing—a wonderful step forward for humanity. Thanks.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

James - thanks for you comments and nice compliments.

As to your first concern about Secular Humanism, I was not trying to describe what separates us from animals so much as to demonstrate first the real power of the human mind and second, the importance of the vast and growing body of stored knowledge that we have accumulated.  While we humans have devised means of preserving knowledge beyond the life of individuals, this knowledge is still subject to the possibility of loss due to deliberate actions by humans as well as the forces of nature.  The World Digital Library is not only an additional way to preserve this knowledge directly but also a way to distribute it widely where it can and will be copied by many and stored, electronically and physically, in many types of media and locations thereby further increasing the possibility that it will survive and last regardless of what happens to the originals or major repositories such as the World Digital Library.  Humans, of course, a much more than their minds and our minds are but one element that makes us different from other forms of life on Earth.

As to your second concern, I too, am no big fan of the U.N.  However, from the April 21, 2009 mention in the Chronicle of Higher Education's Educause Blog piece ( http://chronicle.com/wiredcampus/article/3726/unit... ) and the longer April 21, 2009 Washington Post article ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/artic... ) upon which the blog piece was based, along with what I gleaned from exploring the site, the World Digital Library is primarily a project spearheaded by James H. Billington, the libriarian of the U.S. Library of Congress and assisted by library and museum directors from around the world.  UNESCO's role has been to help bring these museum and library personnel together  and encourage them and their governments to participate by allowing these items to be included in the library as well as to raise the funds (all of which came from private donations)needed to build the project.  Personally, I don't think that the UN or any government can exercise much control over this in the short run as it is currently being run by rather independent minded scholars whose main interest is the sharing of knowledge.  Further, this is not the only project of its nature being developed for the Web as there are a growing number of others with more in development.  Finally, everything that is on this site is and has been available for anyone who can afford to travel to visit the currently 126 participating museums located throughout the world to see.  So, we are not looking at items selectively released from hidden archives, but rather, are making items that are and have been open to those who can afford to travel to see them, open to practically everyone in the world.

Thanks again for your comment


James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

You have created a fantastic Hub here, Chuck.  I was not aware this on-line, digital reference existed. But I will utilize it now that you have illuminated my mind to it.  Thank you very much for making us/me aware of this.

All compliments aside—though they come from my genuine heart—I do do have two issues here that I must raise. 

Firstly, I detect a note of Secular Humanism in your lead-in that may influence the less knowledgeable among us, to their detrimental diminishment.  Namely, the casual reference to what separates us from animals, that to me appears to subtly minimize the reality.  The reality is, the gap between immortal human beings and any animal is so great that any attempt to equate them seems misleading to me. 

Secondly, I have very real concerns, that appear to be unaddressed here, about the United Nations—that most failed of all human institutions—in charge of deciding what constitutes Human Truth. 


bobmnu profile image

bobmnu 7 years ago from Cumberland

Chuck Another great hub. I liked the part about the copyright. I do substitute teaching in the schools and it seem many of the students think that if it is on the Inter Net it is free to copy. When I see it I remeind them but a few reply who will ever know.

I will be checking this new site out. Thanks


cashmere profile image

cashmere 7 years ago from India

This is a library worth visiting. Imagine the knowledge it will store for future generations. It would be a pleasure to browse through it. Dont think one lifetime will be enough though.

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