The early buzz about the world wide web was that it would throw open the floodgates of the world’s accumulated knowledge, creating a window into the cultures of the most far-flung places on earth. We instead got lolcats, pop-up ads, and meaningless quizzes about which superhero you are.
Fortunately, some wise folks had an eye on that original idyllic vision all along, and those folks now bring us the World Digital Library. A project of the Library of Congress and UNESCO, the site provides access to high-quality digital scans of primary source materials from all over the world.
These cultural treasures include maps, photographs, manuscripts, audio and video recordings and more, and there’s at least one item from every UNESCO member country. The WDL’s interface is phenomenal, offering beautiful, high-resolution scans with incredible zooming capability. Check out this 18th century Japanese woodblock print; you can zoom in close enough to see individual paper fibers.
The site is also exceptionally easy to navigate — perhaps dangerously so, if you like looking at pretty pictures and are prone to losing track of time. You can browse by place, time, topic, type of item, or contributing institution, and the site is navigable in seven different languages — Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.
The possibilities for using the WDL in the classroom are nearly endless: Social studies teachers, obviously, will find a treasure trove of primary source materials, but they can also show works created contemporaneously from around the globe for any era, enabling students to develop a holistic sense of global history. Second-language teachers can have students view culturally significant items in their target language. English language arts teachers can identify exquisite images, audio, and video for use as writing prompts. And the ability to browse by topic provides opportunities for use by those often-neglected STEM teachers: Among the topics to choose from is “natural science and mathematics,” which can be further limited to astronomy, geometry, medicine, physics, etc.
An entry under the topic “mathematical geography” is a 15th-century Egyptian book called A Guide for the Perplexed on the Drawing of the Circle of Projection. Many thanks to the World Digital Library for raising our collective IQ. This is what I always knew the internet could be. -EMILY JACK