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US Library of Congress Puts Knowledge on the Web

The Library of Congress has been preparing for the digital age since the 1960s, when it used early technology to create and share its bibliographic information in electronic form. In the 1990s, the library started distributing digitized versions of its treasures to schools and libraries across the United States. Now, there are millions of digitized contents available on the library's web site for users across the world. VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi has more:

In today's digital environment, visitors of the largest library in the world do not need to physically check all of the 134 million items in the Library of Congress. The library has been transforming its existing holdings to digital format, and preserves the digital content on the Web.

Chris Murphy, who is the Head of the Near East Section at the Library of Congress explains.

"The library began digitization efforts about 15 years ago and its first big project was called 'American Memory,' in which documents about American history, photographs, maps and many other items were digitized," he says.

Murphy says over the years the library has made about 14 million digitized items available online.

But Murphy says there are limitations.

"Generally we do not digitize books unless they are in the public domain, meaning there is no copyright difficulty or impediment caused by copyright. We have also digitized music and films, and for those - because of the newness of the recorded sound and motion pictures, they are often still under copyright - we have to receive permission from the copyright holder to digitize them," he said.

Murphy says 32 manuscripts from Mali in West Africa, now moved onto the Internet, will prompt scholars to rewrite the histories of Islam and the transatlantic slave trade.

Digitized items are still a tiny portion of the library's collection. And visitors like Emile Hoffman, an Oxford University history graduate student, find unique resources at the library.

"The books here tend to be more wholesome, especially if you are looking for 1500's West Africa and the battles that occurred," says Hoffman. "A lot of that stuff is not digitized yet, however I can find a lot of information in the books here."

Mary-Jane Deeb, the Chief of African and Middle East Division at the Library of Congress, says that the library has been transformed into a global reservoir of information.

"It has expanded tremendously, and it has included not only the people who can actually show up at the library to use its resources, but also those who are living in China, in India, in the Arab World, in Russia, they can all have access to the materials which are on the Web," she says.

Deeb adds the Library is working with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to include other countries' collections.

"This World Digital Library is really a virtual library," she says, "in which countries from around the world will eventually be able to digitize their collections and put them up on the web virtually to create this library."

Deeb and other librarians say the virtual libraries will not eliminate the need for researchers to actually go to the largest library in the world. Here, visitors can still see, and sometimes touch, a wealth of stored, catalogued and organized knowledge.