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Google has thrown its weight behind an ambitious and potentially controversial US-led project to put the world’s cultural memory online.
The plan, which was hatched by the Library of Congress, would create digital copies of the large stores of historical manuscripts, personal diaries, voice recordings and other cultural items held by national libraries around the world. Even its backers, though, concede that US leadership of something that gets so close to the cultural roots of other nations is bound to provoke opposition.
“There’s no question [but] that somebody’s going to object,” said James Billington, head of the Library of Congress, which is behind the initiative. “Some people will object to almost anything that is American, I suppose,” he added, but: “It won’t be about America, it will be about [each] culture.”
Commenting on US sponsorship of the global repository, Sergey Brin, the Russian-born co-founder of Google, said: “We are going to defer to the experts – they have a great track record in international cooperation. This is useful for everybody, I hope it’s not going to be controversial.”
Google has donated $3m for the initial work of devising technical standards and carrying out pilot studies for the project, known as the World Digital Library. Items to be included will be chosen and presented based on recommendations from specialists in each of the countries concerned, said Mr Billington. He added that commentaries on the items, in both the original languages and in English, would be included, though the text would be intended only to explain the context of each item.
While saying that US values would not play a part in the ambitious global plan, Mr Billington pointed to his library’s origins in Thomas Jefferson’s personal book collection to explain the motivation behind the idea. The American Founding Father had believed that greater public access to knowledge and information was essential “if democracy is ever going to work on a continental scale,” he said.
Google and its rivals including Microsoft are already competing to digitise the world’s leading libraries such as those at Harvard and Oxford universities.