This Week in Literacy: The World Digital Library and the 2009 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

This week sees two important events in literacy: On April 21, the World Digital Library was launched by a joint UNESCO-US Library of Congress collaboration. This weekend, April 25-26, the Los Angeles Times holds its 14th Annual Festival of Books. Both events will have transpired quietly. Nonetheless both are significant milestones to the development of culture.

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The World Digital Library was proposed by Librarian of Congress Dr. James H. Billington in June, 2005. In his speech, entitled A View of the Digital World Library, he described a vision in which the rich collections that “institutions, libraries, and museums have preserved could be given back to the world free of charge and in a new form far more universally accessible than any forms that have preceded it.” Many libraries from around the world have teamed up with Google and other companies, to promote and make available on the Internet books, manuscripts, works of art, and other materials, to readers throughout the world. As of the time of release, the WDL has a modest collection of 1,170 items, available to readers in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Its website thus far is user-friendly. Most of the items are in .PDF format, which makes for less error in software reading; however, they can be a pain when one tries to make out the hazy resolution.

In terms of development, the WDL is ten years behind the rest of internet culture. This was partly due to the United States’ nineteen-year absence from UNESCO after its delegation walked out in protest over its irreconcilable differences with the body at that time. With the US again in the picture, resources and partnerships were made available when previously there were few. As an achievement of UNESCO’s, this would be a first. Ever since UNESCO became part of this writer’s vocabulary, I have yet to hear of more such acts that would validate its presence and budget.

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WDL, of course, is not a new concept. A decade earlier, the Internet Archive was founded by Brewster Kahle in 1996. It boasts 4 petabytes of data, including old movie archives. Project Gutenberg (named after the famous German printer Johannes Gutenberg) was started by Michael Hart, and currently has 28,000 volumes in its electronic library. There are countless others who are carrying on where Gutenberg and his successors have left off.

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The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is an annual gathering of book lovers, booksellers, writers and publishers with the goal of “bringing together the people who create books with the people who love to read them.” In short, it’s a Love-Fest, a less glamorized geek-fest than the San Diego Comic-Con. This year, the festivities may not vary much from previous ones: writers’ panels, kiddie shows, booksignings, and of course… booths and booths of booksellers, publishers, and indie stores, opening the floodgates for bibliophiles with promises of discounts and cheap books. In its heyday, attendance at the Festival may have peaked at 150,000. However, the last few years have seen a gradual decrease. It isn’t a big secret why: Less people are reading books nowadays. This has been an inevitable development, as shown in a moving TV documentary, Paperback Dreams.

None of the panels listed have anything specifically about the whole e-Book and technology revolution, and what the future of reading entails, and we wonder why. There may be peripheral discussions about it in the rest of the panels, but it won’t be the same. It calls to mind how, legend had it, the politicians of Constantinople debated about the nature and sex of angels – just days before it fell into Ottoman hands. Certainly many readers are not as crazy about all this glitzy technology, as am I. However, we must all recognize that, as the man says, times are a-changing. We must not simply realize it, but also accept and integrate it as part of our lives. This is yet one more transition stage in the development of language and culture. Books will still have a place in civilization; they just won’t be the dominant force that they have been for the past 10,000 years, barring any nuclear wars that occur. However we can, we must continue to cherish and remember the written word, whether it is in book or digital form.

As we await the culmination of the week, here are some scenes from last year’s LA Festival of Books, courtesy of Yours Truly. Enjoy!

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