Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The World Digital Library

Just when I'm the most irritated with our local rag because of its skimpy, highly-localized news reportage, they do me proud by including an article (albeit from the Washington Post) on the newly-available educational marvel, the World Digital Library, which aims to make "available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from countries and cultures around the world."

The site is beautifully designed, highly accessible, and a true marvel of modern digital technology. The opening page consists of a world map divided into nine regions: North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, Central and South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Oceania and the Pacific, Europe, Middle East and North Africa, and Africa. Linked to each section (illustrated by a thumbnail of a representative work) is a list of the number of items currently available.

Even at this early stage, the offerings are marvellous: maps, journals, books, photographs, etc. Click on the link and a further list of offerings by country, by period, by topic, by medium, and by institution appears, with further thumbnails of the available works. Click on these and enter a world of enough zoomable images to keep any would-scholar or lover of curiosities busy for years. And the collection will keep growing.

Altogether I've offered six images that I think will provide a peek into what's available, and will not strain international copyright law (this post, after all, amounts to news coverage, and a review of a new online presence). If anyone finds me in error, please let me know. Quoted material is from the description accompanying each image.

"Sketch Map of Africa with a Comparative Overview of the Journeys of Dr. Barth and Dr. Livingstone." This thumbnail does very little to indicate the intriguing nature of this map, which "compares the voyages of the British explorer David Livingstone (1813-73), who traveled down the Zambezi River in 1851-56, and the German Heinrich Barth (1821-65) who, between 1850 and 1855, explored much of western Africa and the Sahara." It was created by August Petermann, and printed by C. Hellfarth in 1857.

A photograph of Victoral Falls, from around 1890-1925. From the Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection at the Library of Congress.

A map of Peking, from 1914. "This detailed map of Beijing by the Cartographic Division of the Royal Prussian Ordnance Society is based on surveys carried out by the Expeditionary Corps in 1900-01," and was a product of the German East-Asian Expedtionary Corps 1900 attempt to put down the Boxer Rebellion.

A page from Dharma Wonder Boy, author unknown, "an early 18th-century example of Nara-ehon, the illustrated manuscripts or hand-printed scrolls and books produced in Japan from the Muromachi (1333-1573) through the mid-Edo (1615-1868) periods. The Hōmyō dōji is originally an East Indian story with roots in Buddhism. Like many such stories, it begins with the characteristic phrase, 'Once upon a time in the land of the Buddha...'"

Map of the Three Arabias by French royal geographer Nicolas Sanson d'Abbeville, 17th century. Engraved by Jan Somer, 1654. " . . . based on the medieaval work of the 12th-century Arab cartographer Al Idrisi (1099-1164), whose work Geographia Nubiensis was first translated into French only in 1619.

The pièce de résistance (the image that opens the post), is from the Description of Egypt: Antiquities, Volume One (Plates): Or, Collection of Observations and Research Conducted in Egypt During the Expedition of the French Army. Second Edition (1920). When Napoleon was still planning to conquer the world, he sent his artists and engineers forth in Egypt to observe and record everything they saw. The result was one of the most remarkable works ever assembled, and the edition featured here is from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

The educational possibilities of this single website are enough to reassure me that not everything about the internet is going to the birds. My students in art and design history, in myth, and in visual anthropology can all find myriad uses for the materials contained herein. It warms the cockles of my little Borg heart to know that this incredibly powerful technology is being used, at least in this case, for the enrichment and betterment of human kind. Now, if you don't mind, I'll get back to fooling around in it.

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