It can feel like everything’s on the internet, from drunken photos of your cousin’s bachelorette party, to the collected works of Shakespeare, to exhaustive synopses of every "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episode ever made.
The internet is like an archive of everything, right? Well, according to Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, not really.
“We’ve basically said the library is on your screen, and it turns out that’s not true,” Kahle said. “Almost all the 20th century’s books, magazines, newspapers, are not online.”
There’s a big gap between what we think is on the internet and what’s actually there — and the internet isn’t even a good archive of itself. Web pages disappear, Pulitzer-prize winning journalism vanishes, and good luck finding your old Friendster profile. (That is, if you had any desire to find your old Friendster profile.)
Brewster Kahle is trying to fix that. With the Internet Archive, he wants to turn the internet into a genuine repository of all of humanity’s knowledge, as well as preserve the history of the internet itself.
The Internet Archive has already digitized millions of books, and made them freely available to anyone on their website at archive.org. But it’s not just books. There are also movies, software, even Grateful Dead bootlegs, all available to everyone. And it’s continuing to expand its library, working to make newer titles accessible.
As for preserving the internet itself, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine lets people view archived versions of old pages (so far it’s saved over 284 billion), and there’s important history there — Kahle brings up the example of George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” press release. The first press release read that ‘combat operations in Iraq have ceased.’ After a couple weeks, that was changed to ‘major combat operations have ceased.’ And then, the whole press release disappeared off the White House’s website completely. So, the only record of it is on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.
Kahle and the Internet Archive take this preservation mission seriously. After the election of President Trump, who has talked about closing up the internet, the Internet Archive announced plans to create a full backup in Canada. There are already partial copies in Alexandria, Egypt and The Netherlands.
According to Kahle, this is all in the service of letting people access information.
“If we don’t put the best of what we have to offer within reach of our children, we’re going to get the generation we deserve," he said. "And what’s on the internet isn’t good enough. It’s thin. Anything we know well, there may be a Wikipedia article, but a lot of the background material, the debates, really the whole 20th century, is missing.”