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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 031-98-E
Division Number: V.
Professional Group: Acquisition and Collection Development
Joint Meeting with: -
Meeting Number: 98.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   Yes

Bibliotheca universalis : a G-7 global information society pilot project

Sonia Zillhardt,
Coopération européenne
Bibliothèque nationale de France
Paris, France


The principle objective of Bibliotheca Universalis is to provide access to the world cultural heritage digitized by libraries.
The article describes how Bibliotheca Universalis was launched in February 1995 in the context of the G7 activities on the Information Society, what has been achieved since (a prototype, an international survey, a definition phase) and how the project will contribute to the Information Society. Eleven partners -- mostly national libraries-- are now involved in the project and the goal is to build a common digital library from existing digitizing programmes


1. G7 and the Information Society (1)

At the summit meeting in Naples in July 1994, the G7 leaders emphasized on the necessity of encouraging the development of a world-wide Information Society.

As a follow-up, the G-7 members along with the European Commission decided to take the opportunity offered by the Ministerial Conference held in Brussels on 25-26 February 1995 to identify a number of selected projects where international cooperation could be an asset. These projects would aim at demonstrating the potential of the Information Society and stimulate its deployment. The projects would be initially undertaken by the partners while remianing open to larger participation, including that of international organizations which was encouraged.

It was expected that the consequences of the joint action in this area would provide a concrete contribution to the requirements of the global Information Society and would demonstrate its potential for the well-being of all citizens.

2. Bibliotheca Universalis

Bibliotheca Universalis is one of these eleven G-7 projects. The 7 founding partners of the project are : Bibliothèque nationale de France and Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication (France, pilot), National Diet Library (Japan, pilot), The Library of Congress (United States), The National Library of Canada (Canada), Discoteca di Stato (Italy), Die Deutsche Bibliothek (Germany), The British Library (UK).

The main objective of Bibliotheca Universalis is to make the major works of the world's scientific and cultural heritage accessible to a vast public via multimedia technologies, hence fostering the exchange of knowledge and dialogue over national and international borders. The aim is to exploit existing digitization programmes in order to build up a large distributed virtual collection of knowledge and make it available via the global communication networks, enhancing the services to the end users. In this way, it is hoped to advance international cooperation towards the establishment of a global electronic library system.

Bibliotheca Universalis should strengthen the function of libraries and improve international availability of digitized resources, including not only bibliographic record but also the information content (integrating text, graphics, still images, sound and video information). It will promote large digitizing techniques and encourage the definition and adoption of global standards. Furthermore, it should demonstrate how integrated digitization techniques can support long term preservation as well as enabling immediate access to the information digitized. All documents would belong to the public domain.

In most countries, considerable efforts have been taken, often for centuries, to preserve, describe and index the national cultural wealth. More recently, libraries have begun to digitize at least part of this information. Digitization means creating multimedia databases enhanced by digital information, and thus offering easy access to cultural and scientific heritage for a large population of users. The digitization effort will have to be continued for a number of years to reach some degree of coverage. The intention is to build up rapidly very large information services containing millions of documents.

Bibliotheca Universalis should provide a practical framework for international cooperation. While building on existing initiatives, it will address inter-operability problems, so creating an open environment which can facilitate participation beyond the G-7 countries. It should also stimulate the effective management of these cultural and knowledge resources and the development of functions for user friendly retrieval of relevant information. Thus, it will address the needs of the general public, researchers, scholars and students.

A network architecture based on distributed digital servers and a common interface for retrieval and navigation tools will be implemented. Existing standards in the field of text, image and sound digitization and of communication protocols will be employed.

Achievements 1996-1998

The project held its first general meeting in May 1995, in Paris at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. This meeting resulted in a clarification of objectives and a plan of action for 1996.

One of the major difficulties identified by the partners was that of funding - so far the entire initiative has been based on the partners'own resources without any extra funding. In May 1996 , Bibliotheca Universalis presented a prototype built around the theme "Africa, Culture and Civilisation" at the G-7 Midrand conference on the "Information Society and Development". The objectives of the prototype were :

The audience observed the interactivity and ease of access to virtual and distributed digitized collections held by national libraries and other cultural institutions and how this knowledge can be effectively acquired and used by the end-user. Access was given to samples of digitized texts, images and sounds on the theme of Africa.

This demo was very successful in terms of international visibility with strong expressions of interest from the vice-president of South Africa, and representatives from UNESCO, the European Commission and the official American delegation. All stressed the importance of the role of libraries in the Global Information Society.

In 1997 , the partners launched a very detailed survey on existing digitization programmes, both at the library and the national levels. In addition to descriptions of the collections and their contents, political, technological, and legal issues have been covered. New "non-G-7" institutions having significant digitization programmes joined Bibliotheca Universalis : Bibliothèque nationale de Suisse, Biblioteca Nacional (Portugal), Biblioteca nacional (Spain), Bibliothèque Royale Albert 1er (Belgium), the National Library of the Czech Republic. Unesco was invited as an observer.

On-going (or planned in a near future) digitization policies and programmes of the partners were precisely described in this survey :

After discussion on the different approaches, the following decisions were taken during the last Bibliotheca Universalis meeting held during IFLA, in Copenhagen on 1st of September 1997 :

  1. Exchange of information on digitization programmes

    The possibility of a regular updating of the survey done in 1997 in paper form has not been retained as participants privileged dissemination of information directly via Internet.

    In order to facilitate exchange of information on partners digitization programmes and to increase visibility on Bibliotheca Universalis, it was decided to create specific "Bibliotheca Universalis" web pages on the GABRIEL site (the web server of national libraries in Europe, www.konbib.nl/gabriel), developed by CENL. Thus, each library would keep the responsibility over the information made available and GABRIEL, the existing information service developed by European national libraries, would be used as a linking device. It was nonetheless highly recommended to give access to precise information on the principles for constituting digital collections, budgets and funding, access methods, technical infrastructures, digitization techniques and standards, ...

  2. Selection of a common theme to create Bibliotheca Universalis

    An in-depth analysis of the digitization programmes of Bibliotheca Universalis partners made it clear that several principles already applied to the creation of digital collections (see list above) : encyclopedic, thematic or historic principles. For Bibliotheca Universalis, the selection of a theme common to all partners would facilitate creation and access to a coherent digital collection. Such Bibliotheca Universalis collection could be part of an existing digital collection or be created specifically for Bibliotheca Universalis purposes. The theme selected by the partners is : "Exchange between people" . This theme is estimated large enough to enable a significant contribution by each partner (travel writings, explorations, immigration-emigration, scientific and technical exchanges, etc.). For instance, BnF has already planned to digitize documents on travels in France, travels in Africa, Die Deutsche Bibliothek can give access to documents on exile literature or National Library of Portugal on explorations and discoveries...

  3. Access to digital documents

    The creation of a common digital collection for Bibliotheca Universalis is a pre-requisite before an operational phase could be launched. In parallel, further work should be done on technical aspects related to digitization standards, systems inter-operability, access methods (full text or records access) It was agreed to rely on an existing structure such as the CoBRA+ working group which will carry on a study on technical aspects with the National Library of Canada. As each partner is already giving access to digitized collections, the creation of a central repository for identifying what is being digitized has been considered useless and time consuming. All efforts should rather concentrate on the networking of collections.

  4. Bibliotheca Universalis implementation

    Bibliotheca Universalis project has been launched by the G7 conference on the information society and as such has gained benefit of the G7 label for the first phase of the project. In order to consolidate their commitment and launch the implementation phase, the institution partners of the project wish now to prepare a formal cooperation agreement on which Bibliotheca Universalis development phase will be built. This agreement could be presented during 1998 CENL and CDNL conferences.

    It is clear that Bibliotheca Universalis has mobilized many key actors of the library sector and has helped pull together the global effort that is vital for the success of the information society. It also shows that increased international concertation is necessary in the field of digital libraries.


  1. For sake of clarity, the term G7 is used in this paper, knowing that now Russia has joined the G7 summit and that the proper term should be G8.