Treasures from the Brown University Library and the John Carter Brown Library are among the nearly 1,200 books, maps, artworks and other cultural items now available online in the World Digital Library, an international library supported by UNESCO and the Library of Congress.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The Brown University Library and the John Carter Brown Library are among the 31 institutions partnering with the Library of Congress and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to launch the World Digital Library (WDL).

The WDL is a web site that features unique cultural materials and national treasures from libraries and archives around the world, including manuscripts, maps, rare books, films, sound recordings, prints, photographs, and other resources. The site was conceived in 2005 by U.S. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington as a way to promote cross-cultural awareness by telling the stories and highlighting the achievements of all countries and cultures, including those that lack the resources to digitize and display important cultural resources. The WDL provides unrestricted public access, free of charge, to this material.

The Bay Psalm Book (1640): The Bay Psalm Book is the first book printed in British North America. This copy, from the John Carter Brown Library, is one of 11 copies of the first edition known to exist and one of only four perfect copies.
The Bay Psalm Book (1640) The Bay Psalm Book is the first book printed in British North America. This copy, from the John Carter Brown Library, is one of 11 copies of the first edition known to exist and one of only four perfect copies. Credit: John Carter Brown Library
Items from the John Carter Brown Library include the first illustrated edition of Christopher Columbus’s letter to the Spanish monarchy, the author’s edition of the first book printed in what is now the United States, Samuel de Champlain’s first book about New France, one of the first maps ever to identify the new world as “America,” and the only known edition (and second oldest imprint) of a book printed in a Jesuit mission in Paraguay. Materials from the Brown University Library include rare works in the iconography of soldiering from the Anne S.K. Brown Military collection.

The WDL launch took place recently at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. Harriette Hemmasi, the Joukowsky Family University Librarian at the Brown University Library, and Edward Widmer, director and librarian at the John Carter Brown Library, joined WDL partners in helping present the project to those attending the semi-annual meeting of UNESCO’s Executive Board. Hemmasi said it was a “great honor” and Widmer agreed it was a “terrific privilege” to be part of this global initiative. “The goals of the project are noble and enriching — to bring together primary documents representing the world’s cultures and make them openly available via the internet,” Hemmasi said. “It is very humbling to be part of this endeavor and to represent Brown.” Widmer noted that the WDL had received more than 1 million hits in its first day.

The WDL functions in seven languages — Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish — and includes content in more than 40 languages. Items on the WDL may easily be browsed by place, time, topic, type of item, and contributing institution, or can be located by an open-ended search, in several languages. Special features include interactive geographic clusters, a timeline, advanced image-viewing and interpretive capabilities. Item-level descriptions and interviews with curators about featured items provide additional information.

Other examples of treasures that will be featured on the WDL include oracle bones and steles contributed by the National Library of China; Arabic scientific manuscripts from the National Library and Archives of Egypt; early photographs of Latin America from the National Library of Brazil; the Hyakumanto darani, a publication from the year 764 from the National Diet Library of Japan; the famous 13th century “Devil’s Bible” from the National Library of Sweden; works of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish calligraphy from the collections of the Library of Congress.

Soldiers in Uniform (1781-1784): This watercolor from the American War of Independence by Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger (1762-1851) is one of the only known images of an African American soldier dating from that time.
Soldiers in Uniform (1781-1784) This watercolor from the American War of Independence by Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger (1762-1851) is one of the only known images of an African American soldier dating from that time. Credit: Brown University Library
The WDL was developed by a team at the Library of Congress and supported by UNESCO. Technical assistance was provided by the Bibliotheca Alexandrina of Alexandria, Egypt. Other institutions contributing content and expertise to the WDL include national libraries and cultural and educational institutions in Brazil, Egypt, China, France, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Mali, Mexico, Morocco, the Netherlands, Qatar, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, Sweden, Uganda, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The Library of Congress, Brown University Library, John Carter Brown Library, and Yale University Library are the only four North American institutions participating in this project.