PARIS — National libraries and the U.N. education agency put some of humanity's earliest written works online Tuesday, from ancient Chinese oracle bones to the first European map of the New World.
U.S. Librarian of Congress James Billington said the idea behind the World Digital Library is 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 an interview in Paris, where the project was launched at UNESCO's headquarters. "These are primary documents of a culture."
A Web site, www.wdl.org, in seven languages — English, Arabic, Chinese, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian — leads readers through a trove of rare finds from more than a dozen countries.
Among them: a 1562 map of the New World; the only known copy of the first book published in the Philippines, in Spanish and Tagalog; an 11th century Serbian manuscript; and the oracle bones — pieces of bone or tortoise shell heated and cracked and inscribed that are among the earliest known signs of Chinese writings.
It 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 in with the 32 libraries and research institutions already involved.
He insists the idea is quality, not quantity.
"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 by curators.