Librarian of Congress James H. Billington proposed the establishment of the WDL in a speech to the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO in June 2005. The basic idea was to create an Internet-based, easily-accessible collection of the world's cultural riches that would tell the stories and highlight the achievements of all countries and cultures, thereby promoting cross-cultural awareness and understanding. UNESCO welcomed the idea as a contribution toward fulfilling UNESCO's strategic objectives, which include promoting knowledge societies, building capacity in developing countries, and promoting cultural diversity on the web. UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura designated UNESCO's Directorate for Communication and Information, then led by Dr. Abdul Waheed Khan, to work with the Library of Congress to develop the project.

In December 2006, UNESCO and the Library of Congress convened an Experts Meeting at UNESCO headquarters in Paris to discuss the project. Experts from all parts of the world identified a number of challenges that the project would need to overcome to be successful. They noted that little cultural content was being digitized in many countries and that developing countries in particular lacked the capacity to digitize and display their cultural treasures. Existing websites often had poorly developed search and display functions. Multilingual access was not well developed.

The Experts Meeting led to the establishment of working groups to develop guidelines for the project, and to a decision by the Library of Congress, UNESCO, and five partner institutions - the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the National Library of Brazil, the National Library and Archives of Egypt, the National Library of Russia, and the Russian State Library - to contribute content to a WDL prototype to be presented at the UNESCO General Conference in 2007. Input into the design of the prototype was solicited through a consultative process that involved UNESCO, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), and individuals and institutions in more than forty countries. The successful unveiling of the prototype was followed by a decision by these institutions to develop a public, freely-accessible version of the WDL.

A team at the Library of Congress then developed the public, online version of the WDL, which was launched at UNESCO in April 2009. Twenty-six institutions in 19 countries contributed content to the launch version of the site. Launch partners included the national libraries of China, Egypt, Russia, France, the United States, and several other countries.

Following the launch, the WDL continued to add content to the site and to enlist new partners from all parts of the world.

In April 2010 institutions and organizations contributing to the WDL adopted the WDL Charter, which established a permanent governance structure that includes an annual partner meeting, an elected Executive Council, standing committees charged with providing advice to the Executive Council, and an institutional project manager.

Key Features

The WDL represented a shift in digital library projects from a focus on quantity for its own sake to quality; quantity remains a priority, but not at the expense of the quality standards established during the start-up phase.

The WDL breaks new ground in the following areas, each representing significant investments of time and effort:

  1. Consistent metadata: Each item is described by a consistent set of bibliographic information (or metadata) relating to its geographical, temporal, and topical coverage, among other requirements. Consistent metadata provides the foundation for a site that is easy and interesting to explore, and that helps to reveal connections between items. The metadata also improves exposure to external search engines.
  2. Description: Among the most distinctive features of the WDL are the descriptions provided for each item. These descriptions are intended to answer two questions: “What is this item and why is it significant?” This information, written by curators and other experts, provides context for users and is designed to spark the curiosity of students and the general public to learn more about the cultural heritage of all countries.
  3. Multilingualism: The metadata, navigation, and supporting content (e.g., curator videos) are translated into seven languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. This feature lengthened site development and complicates maintenance, but brings WDL closer to the goal of being truly universal.
  4. Digital library technical development: The WDL team's work with state-of-the art tools and technologies led to advances in cataloging and multilingual website development:
    • A new cataloging application was developed to support the metadata requirements.
    • A centralized tool with a translation memory was used, which prevents translators from having to translate the same word or phrase twice.
    • An interface was developed, which features the WDL content in ways that are appealing to nontraditional users and that encourage exploration of primary sources.
    • New technologies continue to be developed, improving workflow and reducing the time elapsed between content selection and availability on the site.
  5. Collaborative network: The WDL emphasizes openness in all aspects of the project: access to content; technology transfer for capacity building; and partner, stakeholder, and user participation. Technical and programmatic networks are seen as vital to WDL's sustainability and growth.