World Digital Library

The United Nations released its World Digital Library: an open digital library collecting materials from several different countries, in different languages and from different time periods.

Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley, White House, 1970 (Library of Congress)
Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley, White House, 1970 (National Archives and Records Administration, USA)

This was a project proposed to the UN by James Billington, director of the US Library of Congress. It provides nowadays access to the libraries of 32 institutions. The UN has as a goal to expand the number of institutions that are part of this project.

There are different types of materials available: books, journals, manuscripts, maps, motion pictures, prints and photographs, and sound recordings. As far as I could sense, the majority of this material is from the period before the XIXth century. The items prints and photographs, motion pictures and sound recordings are probably the ones containing most of the material from the last century. I couldn’t find anything related even to famous economists (Quesnay, Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Keynes, etc). Nonetheless, as the UN promises to expand the project, this may become a more relevant source for the majority of the historians of economics.

6 thoughts on “World Digital Library

  1. Thanks for pointing this to us Pedro. There is by the way a few bits (pictures, maps and a few texts) for those interested in colonies (I use keywords “trade” or “commerce”), including a few old pictures of market places.

  2. I think it’s great that so many libraries are coming on-line and are being digitized. there is one thing that might worry me though. While we get access to such copious amounts of new/rare material, will the scholar and historian become a search and cite academic?

    Will the ability to electronically search whole books and works for a single word reduce the quality of the scholarship, or will it produce weak results forcing someone critical enough to read through a whole book, to see what was meant within the fuller context of the work…

    A lot of good will come out of this digitization I feel, but there is a concern here as well, how might one deal with it? Fortunately HOPE will never have this problem as it isn’t even available electronically before 1996 or so…

  3. I think you raise important questions, Benjamin. I believe a good scholarship will go on in the digitized world, although I also fear that a “search and cite academic” may become an easier pattern for one to follow. The crucial element will be how one deals with a massive set of materials in a deeper manner — we face this problem in a lesser degree nowadays. Just as a piece of information, HOPE has now a searchable online archive free to its subscribers (

  4. I believe that there is already a discernable tendancy to over-citation by some historians. This is in my opinion clearest seen in two Chicago-based Journals, Isis and American Historical Journal, where you often have half-pages notes in tiny characters packed up with dozens of references. On the one hand, I do not mind to have a lot of references when it comes to the core of the paper, to know how to situate the article in the jungle of secundary literature. On the other hand, I do not think it is useful to have the same amount of citations when it comes to the more narrative parts of one’s paper. It should be enough to cite a recent article where you can find all the other references (that has been most of time pasted and copied from it), maybe adding to it one or two “fundamental” texts on the subject.
    There is however also a more charitable explanation, which is google and searchable database of articles made it easier to find references that you can then read through your university’s electronic library or order through Amazon. Meaning that people tend to read a lot more secundary literature than it used to be the case before the IT age. Looking comparatively at the case of French (where these tools are less heavily used) and Anglo-saxon historical scholarship, I agree that there might be some truth to it. Anglo-saxon historians tend to be more aware (and read more) of secundary literature and to cite a lot more.

  5. As practicing academics with responsibilities for refereeing and editing manuscripts, I think its up to us to decide where all this is going.

    In my own work I am being pushed by audiences and journals to run content analysis on texts, instead of the more interpretative stuff (or at least, they say, to couple them). But history has for some time now been moving that way, towards socialization into social science analysis and research. I always try going a bit the other way, a fault of character no doubt.

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