In case you didn’t see Librarian of Congress James Billington’s op ed piece in the Washington Post on November 21, he announces a big initiative to create a World Digital Library in which the great works of print are digitized. Guess who’s helping to pay for it? Google did you say? Give the lucky lady a prize!
The column begins:
Digitized, instant communication is the great technological revolution of our time. It has streamlined business and delivered more information more quickly to more people than ever. And it has accelerated basic and applied research. Both the problems and the researchers who work on them are scattered around the world, but they come together in a common focus on the Internet…
Later he argues:
Libraries are inherently islands of freedom and antidotes to fanaticism. They are temples of pluralism where books that contradict one another stand peacefully side by side just as intellectual antagonists work peacefully next to each other in reading rooms. It is legitimate and in our nation’s interest that the new technology be used internationally, both by the private sector to promote economic enterprise and by the public sector to promote democratic institutions. But it is also necessary that America have a more inclusive foreign cultural policy — and not just to blunt charges that we are insensitive cultural imperialists. We have an opportunity and an obligation to form a private-public partnership to use this new technology to celebrate the cultural variety of the world.
Through a World Digital Library, the rich store of the world’s culture could be provided in a form more universally accessible than ever before. An American partnership in promoting such a project for UNESCO would show how we are helping other people recover distinctive elements of their cultures through a shared enterprise that may also help them discover more about the experience of our own and other free cultures.
Somehow creating a World Digital Library turned into an instrument of foreign policy. It’s an interesting leap but not one I’m sure I follow. Part of the problem for people like Billington is that big initiatives like this one need to be “policy relevant” if they are going to be sold successfully on Capitol Hill. It’s a shame that he can’t just make the argument on its merits. I suppose the good news is the the digital capabilities of the Big Library will be used now to begin bringing together similar initiatives on a global scale.