China to Digitalize World's Earliest Encyclopedia

The National Library of China ( NLC) will digitalize the world's earliest and greatest encyclopedia -- the Great Encyclopedia of Yongle (Yongle Dadian) of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.).

Yongle Dadian was the largest encyclopedia in China, Chinese experts said on Thursday in Beijing. Compiled between A.D. 1403 and A.D. 1407, it contains 22,877 volumes in 11,095 books. It is 12 times larger than that of the famous encyclopedia compiled by the French author Diderot in the 18th century.

Much of Yongle Dadian was destroyed during the invasions foreign powers. It is estimated only about 400 books remain in the world, kept in eight countries and regions.

The National Library in Beijing houses 221 books, 60 of which are currently stored in Taiwan.

Chen Li, deputy director of the NLC, said digitalizing Yongle Dadian was another way to protect it besides photocopying it.

Chen said the plan was to set up image, text and bibliography databases. After the encyclopedia was made into CDs, its contents and images would eventually be published on the Internet. The databases would also enable readers to search for information easily, besides providing them with indexes. If the plan was approved, Chen noted, it would not take more than two years to realize the project.

Gu Liren, an expert with the Taiwan Central Library, said, "the Yongle Dadian is not only huge in volume, but also delicate in its handwriting and illustrations. To integrate the ancient encyclopedia with modern technology would help spread Chinese culture to every corner of the world."

Gu said the process of digitalization would enhance communications across the Taiwan Strait.

And it would be a cultural feat if the NLC could have all collectors of Yongle Dadian in the world involved in the giant project.

Chen Li said the NLC was planning to build a 20-TB digital library. After its 7.09 million Chinese books and video and audio publications were digitalized, it could serve some 10 million web users a day.



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