Voices from the past heard online as world's digital archive nears fruition

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You will be able to listen to a former American slave tell his story, turn the pages of a book about ancient treasures from Egypt or pore over old maps written in Latin. When the World Digital Library goes online next year, it will be free and multilingual, with contributions from around the world including rare books, films, prints, sound recordings and musical scores.

Reporters were yesterday shown a prototype of the new archive, which is being put together by the US Library of Congress, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and five partner institutions – Egypt's Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the National Library of Egypt, the National Library of Brazil, the National Library of Russia and the Russian State Library.

John Van Oudenaren, a senior adviser on the project, said the goal was to create a "high-quality, fluent user experience, no matter what language you are using". He added: "Too many sites are multilingual in a very superficial sense."

He gave a guided tour of the prototype, showing off documents such as New World maps, historic photographs from Brazil and a 1949 audio file of a former slave in the US. The prototype, which is not available online, runs in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese. The concept is modelled on the Library of Congress's American Memory project, which launched in the 1990s and now has 11 million historical items online.

The library has support from Google, Apple and Intel, all of whom are contributing on some level. Google has already pledged £1.5m towards the project.

"We have provided expertise about how to digitise documents, how to do it for less money, how to handle and sort digital content and make it accessible," said Hervé Marchet, Apple's director of education markets in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.