The burning of the Library of Alexandria has been one of the biggest catastrophes in archival history, being that it was the largest depository of documents and materials preserving the ancient world. In today’s media based society many worry that a simple glitch in technology or the outdating of a hardware/software system could have similar consequences. Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archives, argues that the very medium of media could actually be its saving grace.
In 1996 Kahle initiated what is now a 10 petabyte operation in the pursuit of “Universal access to all knowledge.” Based primarily out of California, the Internet Archives relies on a host of web crawlers to continually scan the World Wide Web and collect websites, television shows, articles, and other more obscure sources of information that may one day inform its viewers. A large part of the Internet Archives are collecting and scanning the millions of physical books to make them largely accessible to the public, the basis of their Open Library. The TV news section allows you to search their archive of television reports by keywords and date range.
Kahle argues that by allowing the information collected in the archives to be freely accessible, they are in return extending the life expectancy of the material. He posits that it creates an active process of keeping information in use, cared for, and constantly updated. That interest in the materials will allocate interest in its preservation and reformatting. With daily visits by its users averaging at about 500,000, he has the interest to test his theory.
The mission of The Internet Archive is to prevent the destruction of knowledge through incidents such as fire destruction that hit the Library of Alexandria, as well as our own Library of Congress. It is argued that because the Internet Archive shares and duplicates its collection with other institutions, in other counties and political climates, the materials are less likely to be completely destroyed. This holds true for the suspicious that believe the fires were acts of political rebellion as well as those who simply think accidents happen. By creating multi-hosts of the archives they generate and preserve, the authority over their collection, distribution, and destruction becomes more democratized.
I am finding that the Internet Archive is very useful for finding more ‘mundane’ sources that might not be considered worthy of archiving by other institutions. The Wayback Machine is a unique program that lets you see webpages that are no longer existent, or more dated versions. They also have a large collection of videos and audio files that are licensed under creative commons or free access. There is also the Internet Memory Foundation which shares similar ideals and practices.
Some of the difficulties lie in the fundamental nature of the archive itself, however. It is sometimes hard to sort through the large collection to find a specific material. One of the largest debates about archiving social media, for instance, is what is worth saving. While the Internet Archive take a more liberal stance on the issue, it creates bulk.
There is also the issue of copyright laws prohibiting the collection of certain materials. The Internet Archive allows any user to contact them if they believe their materials have been unlawfully obtained and posted to their site. This limits the material the Archives can distribute. It also, however, takes some of the work out of finding the material yourself and searching for copyright clearance. Knowing that it was posted on the site, gives more confidence that the material may be used again given the sites allegiance to free press.
To learn more, here is a great documentary about the Internet Archives: