Free education from home: The World Digital Library debuts

The combination of hard times and free resources has turned local libraries into community hotspots, as frugal citizens turn to them for free entertainment and free Web access. Despite this, in city after city, libraries are seeing their hours reduced in budget cutbacks.

Over the past few weeks, though, some of the world's greatest libraries have been expanding. They're just doing it online.

The grandest national archives of 19 countries, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia, have come together to create the World Digital Library, and when it was inaugurated in Paris on April 21, copies of some 1,200 priceless documents were placed online for anyone and everyone to reference. The site, which is funded by private and corporate donations (Microsoft and Google pitched in), is worth hours of absorption for any history nut: You can zoom in and move around on high-resolution images as quickly as if you're playing the world's geekiest video game.
The WDL is a joint effort between UNESCO and our own Library of Congress. As Time magazine pointed out, it's a little on the skimpy side right now, but this $60 million effort is still in its infancy. There are still plenty of electrifying primary sources available to flick through on your own time, including Emancipation Proclamation and the journal of Ferdinand Magellan. There are also some pretty weird selections, like a 1972 recording of "Amazing Grace" played on bagpipes. Then again, there used to be lots of worthy films left off of our National Film Registry, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still calling some pretty obvious selections to the podium. Give it time.

And give it thanks. We're not all Ph.D. scholars, and most of us don't have expense budgets or the credentials to travel to the world's great libraries to access the documents that made us who we are. As promising at the WDL is, it's still way behind what we deserve. We can watch the opening credits to every season of The Apprentice on YouTube, but if you want to see the Mercator maps for yourself, you're lucky to drum up a foggy JPG, or, as with the type of software used by the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery, zooming and panning is a jerky, tricky chore.

The WDL is by no means the widest umbrella, either. Other major national libraries have their own online libraries that haven't yet shared their goodies with this global effort. The British Library has one of the best, using the same video-reading technology is uses in its on-site museum. You can read Lewis Carroll's hand-decorated Alice's Adventures Under Ground, for example, Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, or The Lindisfarne Gospels, dating to 715 -- none of those files are viewable through the WDL. Similarly, Europeana is a joint venture between EU countries that aims to put some 10 million digitized items online by 2011.

In addition to its more primitive American Memory digitization project dating to the last decade, our Library of Congress is slowly progressing with its MyLOC online section, which features up-close, at-your-command exploration of some important documents, such as a draft of the Constitution. That one's really cool; you can ask your computer to slide a window over the original paper to translate the colonial text and editors' scrawl for you.

The democratization of education has been possible for generations, but for some reason, we're only able to take baby steps toward enlightenment and expanded perspective. Everyone's projects are thin on the ground and mostly separate, but for those who want a free education at home, with a little diligent browser bookmarking you can cobble together an armchair exploration of the world.
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