Technology

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Ben Margot/AP
Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle checks connections to hard drives comprising
his digitally stored library Monday, Dec. 18, 2006.

The Quest to Put the World's Information Online

March 07, 2009 08:00 AM
by Liz Colville
A digital library is in the works that may rival efforts by Google and the Library of Congress, raising questions about the future of print.

"[I]mpossibly idealistic"

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The simply designed Internet Archive hasn’t changed much over the years, but it doesn’t have to. It is the home of a vast collection of text, video, audio and a famous tool called the Wayback Machine, an archive of the Web of the past.

As The Economist reports, the technology guru behind the site, Brewster Kahle, is making headway on another project to make the world’s information available online in an organized, educational and legal manner.

But he is one of many, overshadowed by more well-known technology companies like Google and by the Library of Congress. Google’s digital library effort is mired in a copyright battle that reached a preliminary settlement in October 2008. However, the company remains one to watch in the quest to bring more information online.

The U.S. Library of Congress National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program is another notable project in information preservation.

But Kahle doesn’t seem threatened by rival projects. His passion is seemingly for the footprints tracked across the Web over time. The Internet Archive is not only a project in freedom and accessibility, but in preservation, something that might have charmed even the late John Updike, a skeptic of book digitalization.

Kahle describes his Internet Archive as “Alexandria 2.0.” The reference is to the ancient library in Alexandria, Egypt—the Bibliotheca Alexandrina—which was founded in 288 BC by Ptolemy I during the height of Alexander the Great’s empire. It was “part academy, part research center, and part library,” explains the Web site of the New Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a library erected in its place in 2002.

“The great thinkers of the age, scientists, mathematicians, poets from all cultures came to study and exchange ideas” at the first Bibliotheca. The library lasted for more than six centuries, but deteriorated with the advent of war, an accidental fire and neglect. The new library opened in 2002 and boasts not only a 500,000-book collection, but also an Internet archive, planetarium, specialized libraries, museums and more.

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Opinion & Analysis: Will the presses die out?

In a much-discussed 2006 article in The New York Times Magazine, “Scan This Book!” Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine argued that an online universal library, presumably from Google, was imminent, and that not even legal battles could stand in its way.

Books “can be linked, manipulated, annotated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media and sewn together into the universal library,” Kelly asserted. “Soon a book outside the library will be like a Web page outside the Web, gasping for air. Indeed, the only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to wire their texts into the universal library.”

Some thought Kelly’s vision was misguided. Online texts “will illuminate, rather than eliminate, books and prints and manuscripts that only the library can put in front of you,” argued Anthony Grafton in The New Yorker in 2007. “The narrow path still leads, as it must, to crowded public rooms where the sunlight gleams on varnished tables, and knowledge is embodied in millions of dusty, crumbling, smelly, irreplaceable documents and books.”

John Updike felt similarly. In a Times op-ed, “The End of Authorship,” the late author called Kelly’s prediction “a pretty grisly scenario.”

Kelly suggested that books would be thought less of as “copies” and more as “performances, access to the creator, personalization” with the advent of digitalization. Updike responded, “[D]oes this not throw us back to the pre-literate societies, where only the present, live person can make an impression and offer, as it were, value?”

Reference: The Internet Archive

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