How Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive Will Preserve the Infinite Information on the Web

Brew­ster Kahle is an unas­sum­ing man. But as an inter­net pio­neer and dig­i­tal librar­i­an, he may right­ly be called a found­ing father of the Open Cul­ture ethos. In 1996, Kahle began work on the Inter­net Archive, a tremen­dous­ly impor­tant project that acts as a safe­ty net for the mem­o­ry hole prob­lem of Inter­net pub­lish­ing. Kahle devel­oped tech­nol­o­gy that finds and aggre­gates as much of the inter­net as it is able in his mas­sive dig­i­tal library.

Along with the archive, which Open Cul­ture has drawn from many a time, comes Kahle’s “Way­back Machine,” named for the time-trav­el­ing device in a Rocky and Bull­win­kle seg­ment fea­tur­ing the genius dog Mr. Peabody and his pet boy Sher­man (the car­toon spelled it as an acronym: WABAC). The “Way­back Machine,” as you prob­a­bly know, logs pre­vi­ous ver­sions of web­sites, hold­ing on to the web’s past like clas­sic paper libraries hold on to an author’s papers. (Here’s what we looked like in 2006.)

In the ani­mat­ed adven­tures of Peabody and Sher­man, the Way­back Machine was a mon­strous con­trap­tion that occu­pied half of Peabody’s den. And while we often think of Inter­net space as lim­it­less and dis­em­bod­ied, Kahle’s Inter­net Archive is also phys­i­cal­ly housed, in a for­mer Chris­t­ian Sci­ence church now lined with tow­er­ing servers that store dig­i­tized books, music, film and oth­er media for free access. It’s an impres­sive space for an impres­sive project that will like­ly expand past its phys­i­cal bound­aries. As Kahle says above, “it turns out there is no end; the web is, in fact, infi­nite.”

Kahle is deeply invest­ed in data. The chal­lenges of main­tain­ing the Inter­net Archive are immense, includ­ing trans­lat­ing old, unplayable for­mats to new ones. But what Kahle calls the great­est chal­lenge is the peren­ni­al threat to all libraries: “they burn.” And he’s com­mit­ted to design­ing for that even­tu­al­i­ty by mak­ing copies of the archive and dis­trib­ut­ing them around the world. If you’re inter­est­ed in what moti­vates Kahle, you should watch his 2007 TED talk above. He frames the busi­ness of archiv­ing the inter­net as one of mak­ing avail­able “the best we have to offer” to suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions. “If we don’t do that,” Kahle warns, “we’re going to get the gen­er­a­tion we deserve.” It’s a warn­ing worth heed­ing, I think.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

10 Clas­sic Films from the Inter­net Archive

8,976 Free Grate­ful Dead Con­cert Record­ings in the Inter­net Archive, Explored by the New York­er

Kids (and Less Savvy Mar­keters) Imag­ine the Inter­net in 1995

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.