Getting closer to all knowledge available to everyone

Written by Ced Kurtz on .


An article on Page A-4 of Tuesday's Post-Gazette caught TechMan's eye.

"Global e-library focusing on relics," reported the inauguration of the World Digital Library (, a Web site that seeks "to display and explain the relics of all human cultures."

This ambitious project was the brainchild of the U.S. Librarian of Congress James Billington with the backing of the Library of Congress and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

When TechMan hears of a project like this, he thinks back to the early days of the Internet, when excitement was building about the idea that all human knowledge could be made available to everyone.

That idea has been around for centuries.

The ancient Library at Alexandria, founded at the beginning of the third century B.C., was charged with collecting all the world's knowledge. It did so partially by pulling the books from every ship that came into port, making copies and returning the originals. Sort of like early file sharing.

In 1946, a famous article appeared in The Atlantic Monthly by Vannevar Bush, a prominent science policymaker. Called, "As We May Think," it proposed a microfilm-based machine called the memex, from which large amounts of knowledge could be accessed.

"Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them," he wrote. Although in the computer age the memex seems crude, these "associative trails" suggested the idea of hypertext that developed into the links so widely used today on the Web.

With the advent of the CD-ROM in the 1980s, the availability of high-density media that could contain text, images, audio and video again raised thoughts of large accumulations of knowledge being available on one device.

CD-ROM encyclopedias appeared, the most popular of which was Microsoft's Encarta. Last month, Microsoft announced that it was pulling the plug on Encarta. The press announcement didn't mention Wikipedia, but the allusion was there.

The Web boom in the '90s again excited the dream of making all human knowledge accessible to everyone.

Gone was the idea of storing a lot of knowledge on one machine. Instead the knowledge lives on millions of computers that can be accessed from home through a network -- the Internet.

The Web and online databases give us the means of digital access; now the challenge is to make the knowledge digital and get it into databases so it is accessible.

Which brings us back to the World Digital Library. As these efforts to get human knowledge and human artifacts online burgeon, we get closer to the dream of all knowledge being universally accessible.

The World Digital Library is bringing cultural objects online; the Encyclopedia of Life ( is posting information on every species on earth; The Universal Digital Library Million Book Collection (, begun at Carnegie-Mellon University, is digitizing as many books as copyright allows.

These efforts often are being made at the governmental level. The European Library ( allows access to the holdings of the national libraries of 48 countries in Europe. The American Memory collection of the Library of Congress ( has more than 9 million items documenting U.S. history and culture.

Of course, we are still a long way from all human knowledge being accessible to everyone. But we're getting there.

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