Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Things That Make You Go "Wow!"

An article in today's Washington Post restored some of my good humor. Far-sighted and well-intentioned people have found another good way to use the internet:

A globe-spanning U.N. digital library seeking to display and explain the wealth of all human cultures has gone into operation on the Internet, serving up mankind's accumulated knowledge in seven languages for students around the world.

James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress who launched the project four years ago, said the ambition was to make available on an easy-to-navigate site, free for scholars and other curious people anywhere, a collection of primary documents and authoritative explanations from the planet's leading libraries.

The site [full link below] has put up the Japanese work that is considered the first novel in history, for instance, along with the Aztecs' first mention of the Christ child in the New World and the works of ancient Arab scholars piercing the mysteries of algebra, each entry flanked by learned commentary. "There are many one-of-a-kind documents," Billington said in an interview. ...

Development costs of more than $10 million were financed by private donors, including Google, Microsoft, the Qatar Foundation, King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. By comparison, the American Memory project cost about $60 million, suggesting that more funds will have to be raised as the World Digital Library expands.

I clicked on the link to see just how easily navigable the site was and to sample some of the early works which have been digitized and the "learned commentary." The site is pretty easy to get around in, but only after a couple of false starts. Thumbnail pictures serve as links, but they get you only to larger pictures of the texts themselves. Clicking on one of the categories at the top of the page ("place," "time period," "subject") was easier for me.

The commentaries are placed alongside the reduced pictures, and are rather helpful in understanding just why the subject is important to the culture that produced it and to the rest of the world. The only defect I see is that the commentaries are a bit too succinct for the average person, although there are additional links on the page (which I did not check out) which might make that defect moot.

All in all, the project is amazing, even at this early stage. Mr. Billington, the United Nations agency in charge, and the various philanthropic organizations which funded the project are to be congratulated and thanked for bringing this vision to fruition.

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