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THE NEW MEDIA CENTER: The World Digital Library--Global Primary Resources Just a Click Away

By Mary Alice Anderson - Posted Mar 1, 2013
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“Is there anything I can use for world history and cultures?”

Teachers and media specialists looking for digital primary resources representing world history and cultures will be excited to learn about a growing collection of significant, multilingual resources accessible through the World Digital Library (WDL). Convenient, easy access begins at the Library of Congress website ( or directly at

The World Digital Library is a partnership between the Library of Congress and more than 150 libraries, museums, foundations, and diverse cultural organizations throughout the world. WDL’s principal objectives are as follows:

• Expand the volume and variety of cultural content on the internet

• Promote international and intercultural understanding

• Provide resources for educators, scholars, and general audiences

• Build capacity in partner institutions to narrow the digital divide within and between countries

The launch page world map has thumbnails representing nine geographic regions. Each image invites browsing through thousands of manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical scores, recordings, films, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings. (See Figure 1.) The largest group, more than 3,000 primary source artifacts, represents European cultures and history. More than 1,400 items represent the Latin American and Caribbean regions. Collections from other regions vary from hundreds of significant artifacts to less than 100.

Getting Started

Select a region and browse thumbnails of artifacts. Select one thumbnail for full bibliographic information and an item-level description. Listen to the page or watch interviews with curators to learn more. Similar Items and links in an artifact’s bibliographic record take you to additional materials. Narrow your choice to a specific time period by sliding selectors along a unique customizable timeline. For example, confining a search of the more than 3,000 items in the European collection to 1500 A.D.–A.D. reduces the results from 3,000 items to about 800.

Additional browse options: Figure 2 shows more approaches to exploration. Each option displays categories, thumbnails, and multiple ways to refine a search of artifacts.

Browse by topic: Figure 3 shows thumbnails in five of the 10 general topic areas, ranging from language and literature to science and technology. Choose View all to scroll through a Gallery View of WDL’s complete contents. Select List View for titles only. Educators familiar with the viewing choices available in the American Memory collection ( will see the similarity between WDL and American Memory.

Browse by institution: Take time to peruse this unique and interesting list of contributing institutions. It will expand your thinking beyond the expected libraries such as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina to the unexpected Circus World Museum in the small city of Baraboo, Wis. A short list of other contributing institutions gives a general feel of WDL’s vast partnerships: Allama Iqbal Library, University of Kashmir; the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library; the Iraqi National Library and Archives; Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library; National Library of China; and the National Library of Serbia. A collection may contain resources other than those native to its geographic region. The Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (St. Paul, Minn.), for example, has rare manuscripts from multiple antiquities.

Languages: Choose from seven languages to use the navigation tools and read content descriptions in a language of your choice: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Select Chinese to view the information from right to left. All artifacts appear in their original language with more than 40 languages represented in WDL’s print and multimedia primary source materials. An Arabic example, “A Summary Explanation of the Pronouncements of the Scholars and Theologians,” is shown in Figure 4. A short Curator video explains the artifact; closed captioning is also provided.

Keyword searching: Enter a keyword or phrase in the search box. As with browsing, the results are displayed as thumbnails. Narrow results by selecting from a list of choices, as partially shown in Figure 5, when I searched using the term “food.” I found a quite a few interesting recipes and photos. I would have loved to have these materials so readily available when I worked with Family and Consumer Science students studying world cuisine and culture. The challenge inherent to keyword searching is applying the correct keyword search terms. Pay attention to the subject terms in the bibliographic records and similar items to help learn what words are used and what works best. Take time for serendipitous discovery that comes with browsing.

No matter how you begin a search, bibliographic record information, links to similar items, curator videos, and options for narrowing your choices as shown in Figure 5 are the tools to help. Curator videos are not available for all individual items, but all artifacts do have a lengthy description with significant information and a detailed bibliographic record.

A Range of Ways to Use WDL

Danna Bell-Russel, an educational resource specialist at the Library of Congress, offers a suggestion for how WDL can be used to expand the variety of resources used to teach American history. Maps are a great way to provide a sense of place and to show why particular events occurred where they did, she says. The primary source set featuring Maps From the World Digital Library includes a variety of maps documenting how mapmakers saw our world. Bell-Russel also suggests using primary sources in other formats to help students understand what authors or artists believed about life in other countries, for example, by using drawings such as Picture of Flourishing America, a Japanese triptych print showing a supposed view of an American town square. In a blog post on the Library of Congress website, she suggests including exploratory questions and activities: “What do they see that they might not expect? Students may compare these drawings to images from the United States created at the same time. What do they think the Japanese thought of the United States when they drew this image?”

Immigration and emigration are a common topic in North American curriculum. What did immigrants learn about coming to North America while they were in their native countries? I enjoyed a document written for citizens of Sweden that described what they would discover when they moved to western Canada. While the document is in Swedish, I related to the photos depicting a geographic area similar to a part of Minnesota settled by Swedes. But what about immigration to other countries? Search WDL to discover maps, journals, and brochures about immigrating to other parts of the world. Students will learn from browsing to discover an artifact that interests them or relates to their ethnicity or by comparing similar items from different cultures.

Foreign language students could complete a keyword search using Chinese, Arabic, or Spanish to examine artifacts in a language they are studying. What words can you read? How is the language like the contemporary language? How is it different?

I would have loved the easy access to interesting visual resources such as journals, maps, and drawings when my middle school students were challenged to find information about the “Colonization of Africa.” Many resources were quickly available using the general key phrase “European Africa.”

Primary sources are not just for humanities and social studies. The National Library and Archives of Egypt is one of several institutions that have artifacts related to math and science. The 14th-century Guidebook for Students on the Use of Arithmetic was a standard introduction to arithmetic. In a 1473 Treatise for Observers on Constructing the Circle of Projection, which discusses timekeeping, math and science teachers will find wonderful visuals and documents to use in teaching math or science history. More ideas for classroom use are suggested in the blog posts cited later in the article.

WDL resources will help educators looking for materials and ideas to help meet the requirements of Common Core and other standards. The Search by Standards option on the Library of Congress Teachers page makes it possible to search the website’s classroom materials by Common Core State Standards and relevant organizations such as the National Council for Social Studies. Use a drop-down menu to select a content area, standard, and grade level. Results provide links to classroom materials and selected WDL resources. While many WDL resources are not available in English, their highly visual appearance, the detailed descriptions, curator videos, and full bibliographic records make artifacts that were previously inaccessible highly accessible and usable.

Reaching Out With Social Media

“On This Day” tweets archived on WDL’s launch page make connections between the current day and WDL resources, keeping us informed of updates or topics of interest. Browsing the tweets is another path to discovery. Recent WDL additions and updates are announced on the launch page. WDL users can personally share content using Facebook, Twitter, or email icons present on each content item’s individual page.

From a Vision to Global Resources for Students

Librarian of Congress James Billington initially proposed WDL in 2005. A meeting of experts was convened in 2006 to define its scope and guidelines. Initial partners were the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the National Library of Brazil, the National Library and Archives of Egypt, the National Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library. A prototype was presented at the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) General Conference in 2007; WDL was launched in 2009. Continued support comes from UNESCO and private funds. As this article is being written, WDL has 6,700 unique primary source artifacts waiting for you to discover on one easy-to-use website!

WDL is a unique collection of global digital primary resources from varied and unique contributing institutions. The World Digital Library is a highly visual, easy-to-use, and unique collection of global resources. Connect your students with global treasures.


Contact Mary Alice at



World Digital Library,

About the World Digital Library,

Utagawa, Hiroshige (1842?–1894) Picture of Flourishing America (1861),

Library of Congress Teachers page,

Classroom Materials: Maps From the World Digital Library,


• Bell-Russel, Danna, Teaching the World: Primary Sources With an International Flavor, Aug. 1, 2012

• Moats, Stacie, The World Digital Library: Cultural Treasures From Around the World on One Site, Feb. 23, 2012

Search by Standards,

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