By Jon Herskovitz
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Thousands of letters, photographs and documents relating to former South African President Nelson Mandela went online on Tuesday in a project aimed at increasing access to the archives which detail his long walk to freedom.
Items including letters Mandela wrote to his family that were smuggled out of prison, his Methodist church membership card from about 80 years ago and hand-written diaries have been digitized and laid out on a website (archive.nelsonmandela.org) designed to look like a museum exhibit.
"The one thing that it does immediately is make a much sought-after legacy available to the world," said Achmat Dangor, the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
The project, with an initial cost of $3 million, was put together by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and the Google Cultural Institute.
It is a first for Internet giant Google, which has made sure the material is open to all and original copyright holders keep their rights. Google is planning to use this project as a springboard to bring more content on line from other historical figures of the 20th century.
Google has been criticized for trying to use its technological might to wall off material from rivals.
"You can interact with the content. You can search the content. Although we have mimicked the museum experience, we are now in a place where we think we have augmented the experience,' said Mark Yoshitake, who leads project management for the Google Cultural Institute.
Sections such as "Presidential Years" include photos with links to videos, text, personal notes and testimonials laid out for use with typical computers and tablets.
Ndileka Mandela, the granddaughter of the former president, said he has always been a progressive man and is elated by the online archive.
"As much as we would like to claim him as our grandfather, he is a public figure. The publishing of the letters he wrote to various family members is not really a problem because it shows people that he is a human being," she said.
Mandela, 93, underwent keyhole abdominal examination last month that showed nothing was wrong with the man awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping bring down white-minority apartheid rule in South Africa.
"For a man his age, he is doing well. He hasn't lost his sense of humor," said Ndileka Mandela.
(Editing by Paul Casciato)