The WDL has stated that its mission is to promote international and intercultural understanding, expand the volume and variety of cultural content on the Internet, provide resources for educators, scholars, and general audiences, and to build capacity in partner institutions to narrow the digital divide within and among countries. It aims to expand non-English and non-western content on the Internet, and contribute to scholarly research. The library intends to make available on the Internet, free of charge and in multilingual format, significant primary materials from cultures around the world, including manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical scores, recordings, films, prints, photographs, architectural drawings, and other significant cultural materials.
The WDL opened with 1,236 items. As of early 2018, it lists more than 18,000 items from nearly 200 countries, dating back to 8,000 BCE.
History and concept
After almost 20 years without participation, the United States re-established its permanent delegation to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2003. Dr. James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, was nominated as a commissioner of the U.S. National Commission to UNESCO and was invited to give a plenary speech at its inaugural conference in June 2005. His speech, entitled A View of the Digital World Library, 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."
At the National Commission's 2006 annual conference, Dr. John Van Oudenaren, Senior Advisor for the World Digital Library at the Library of Congress, outlined a project plan for bringing Dr. Billington's vision to fruition. Foremost was the belief that the World Digital Library should engage partners in planning the four main project areas: technical architecture, selection, governance, and funding. This was achieved in December 2006, when 45 national library directors, library technical directors, and cultural and educational representatives from UNESCO met in Paris to discuss the development of the World Digital Library. The participants formed working groups to address the special challenges of each of the four project areas.
The working groups met in the first half of 2007 and included professionals in the field of digital libraries - including computer science, library and information science, Web development, and fundraising. The working groups presented their findings to the larger WDL group in July 2007. Findings from this planning process were presented at the thirty-fourth session of the UNESCO General Conference in October 2007 in Paris, France.
In early September 2008, the Organization of American States (OAS) agreed to join with the Library of Congress in developing the World Digital Library. Secretary General José Miguel Insulza signed the "Contributor Agreement" with Librarian of Congress, Dr. James Billington, at an OAS headquarters ceremony.
The World Digital Library was launched on April 21, 2009 at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France.
These are really great treasures, not merely miscellaneous things about a country or culture.