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Web weaves a magical history tour

NATIONAL libraries and the United Nations education agency put some of humanity's earliest written works online yesterday - from ancient Chinese oracle bones to the first European map of the New World.

United States Librarian of Congress James Billington said the idea behind the World Digital Library was not to compete with Google or Wikipedia but to pique young readers' interest and get them reading books.

"You have to go back to books," Billington said in Paris, where the project was launched at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's headquarters. "These are primary documents of a culture."

A Website in seven languages ( leads readers through a trove of rare finds from more than a dozen countries.

Among them are a 1562 map of the New World; the only known copy of the first book published in the Philippines; an 11th-century Serbian manuscript; and the oracle bones - pieces of bone or tortoise shell heated and cracked and inscribed, which are among the earliest known signs of Chinese writings.

The Website also has early photographs, films and audio tracks. For now, searches on the site produce no more than a few hundred items in any category, but Billington says the project is ready to expand as other national libraries join the 32 libraries and research institutions already involved.

"It's not an online bibliography," he said. "These pieces are one of a kind, or available in just a very few places. You don't get that elsewhere."

The site provides page-by-page viewing of the original works, scanned in by the national libraries that took part in the project, often with multilingual narration.

It unites items about one subject but held in different countries, in a kind of online retrospective. "It brings together cultural heritage that's scattered around the world," he said.

Billington sees it as a starting point, "an entryway to learning for those who are living in an audiovisual world." He hopes it will get readers interested in a topic or historical period and then nudge them toward real libraries to read more.


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