June 23, 2006 4:00 AM PDT

Brewster Kahle's modest mission: Archiving everything

Brewster Kahle is on a mission. He wants the whole planet to have access to human knowledge. All human knowledge. And he's striving to make that possible--one byte at a time.

Ten years ago, Kahle founded the nonprofit Internet Archive, with the goal of preserving the hitherto ephemeral pleasures of the Net for posterity. But, unsatisfied with limiting himself to the saving of Web sites, Kahle decided to broaden his scope and include existing collections of books, television programs, movies and music in the archive's massive digital repository.

In addition to all that digitizing, and the free hosting of audio and video content, the archive also sponsors the SFLan.org project, which offers free wireless Internet in San Francisco.

Photos: Library of Alexandria

Kahle enthusiastically discusses his ambitious plan to build, make freely accessible and preserve what he calls--in reference to the legendary lost library of the ancient world--the "Library of Alexandria, v.2."

"Let's have a library system that is in the great traditions of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Carnegie and the Library of Alexandria," he says while showing a reporter around the Internet Archive's offices in San Francisco's Presidio. "If we are able to build that library again with the vision of the Greeks but the technology of the modern era, that's something to be proud of."

The 45-year-old Kahle, hyperarticulate and humble, often sports a quizzical expression that, with his spectacles; graying, curly hair; and bushy eyebrows, lends him a quirky, owlish look. He's described as a geek by friends, but a balanced one, whose hobbies range from sailing with his wife and two young sons to spending time at a theater camp in Vermont.

His favorite book is "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin," and he's recently taken to listening to a musical group called The Ditty Bops, which he describes as a cross between The Andrews Sisters and The Roches.

An alliance for free access
Kahle relishes his role as Internet archivist. The staggering volume of material to digitize--centuries of historic media, and new data appearing by the minute--doesn't daunt him. Commercial interests whose monetizing efforts threaten free universal access do. So he readily takes up the cause to fight for freely accessible information.

"If we lose (the library of human knowledge) to a corporate interest, I would have screwed up. Having it go to corporate hands is my worst nightmare," he says.

Which brings us to the Open Content Alliance, a joint effort by the Internet Archive, Yahoo and Microsoft to digitize library collections, including those of the University of California system and The University of Toronto. Unlike a similar project from Google, which allows users to read the digitized content only through Google's Web site, the OCA material will be searchable through any service and everyone will be encouraged to download books.

Also, the OCA is digitizing only books in the public domain, whereas Google is including copyright-protected titles in its scanning efforts and will offer small snippets of such texts to those searching its database. As a result of Google's approach, groups representing authors and publishers have sued the search giant.

"Some would like to control (information) so fewer people make money and have access. This is not right," Kahle says. "I really want the Enlightenment-era ideal of universal education."

Kahle is not opposed to companies turning a profit--he pocketed millions in 1995 when AOL bought his first company, WAIS, one of the first Internet search systems. Much of that windfall went to fund the Internet Archive, which has an annual budget of about $5 million.

"I'm not against people making money. In fact, it's absolutely essential," he says, adding that there's plenty of money to be made off services related to the distribution of free information.

See more CNET content tagged:
Brewster Kahle, Alexandria, archiving, library, Google Inc.

13 comments

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Whither (wither?) archives?
I had an opportunity to hear Kahle speak at Stanford in the not-too-distant past; so I am familiar with his rhetorical style. He comes on with strong idealist visions that can easily rouse the enthusiasms. Then, should he get down to any brass tacks, one comes away with the feeling that he has had to back down from those visions on just about every front. The question then remains as to whether or not any of that vision has been left.

In my case I was left with a reminder of Sturgeon's Revelation, cited on Wikipedia as "Ninety percent of SF [science fiction] is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud" &lt;<a class="jive-link-external" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Sturgeon" target="_newWindow">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodore_Sturgeon</a>&gt;. By the end of Kahle's talk, I found myself wondering if his archiving project was basically taking care of Sturgeon's 90%, while the stuff that really mattered (at least to me) was in that remaining 10%! Perhaps this is an extreme position; but it should also raise the question of the value of an archive in the first place (which I tried to capture in that whither/wither pun).

Mills' article has a very handy link to the Wikipedia entry from the Library of Alexandria, but what that link does not indicate is the massive amount of controversy that sprang up over the authoring of that article. I see this as an object lesson of a very important precept: The CONTENT of any repository is rarely as significant as the CONVERSATIONS that accumulate around that content. The Ancient World was one where reading and conversation where closely coupled (at least if we are to take the dramatic settings of many of Plato's dialogs at face value). We seem to be detaching ourself from that coupling; and it is good to see that Wikipedia is doing something to reverse that trend (even if their approach sometimes has problems of its own). I would rather have the opportunity to enjoy the restoration of such conversation than any amount of archival access to that 90% chunk of Sturgeon's view of the world!
Posted by ghostofitpast (199 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Grow up
Look buddy, it's not all just about YOU. One man's garbage is
another man's treasure. If the project doesn't cost you a dime
personally, why are you so against it? Oh, yeah, because if it was
all up to you, then the money would go to what interests YOU.

The conversations you are referencing in the last third of your
comment are exactly what is being archived, you dolt. Those
conversations and other information being archived are
invaluable to future generations.

By the way, thus far the postings reflect your 90% rule. 90% of
the comments (yours) are crap.

Have a nice day.
Posted by lesfilip (496 comments )
Link Flag
one more thing
The objective is "the Internet" not "90% of the Internet". So even if your unsubstantiated estimate is true, within the confines of the whole, wait long enough, and there MUST eventually be something that would be relevant to yourself.
Posted by qazwiz (208 comments )
Link Flag
Rhetoric aside...
...have you actually used the archive? I don't think a month goes by that I don't visit it at least once to listen to a concert by some artist I've never heard of, dig up a website that died years ago in search of some obscure piece of genealogical history or just used it to dig up old news articles or essays that, otherwise, would no longer be available.

It's an extraordinary resource, though I'm sure there has been a large amount of compromise and outright impeding of what content he's been able to host and serve, but that doesn't minimize his vision.
Posted by DaClyde (96 comments )
Link Flag
He has aligned with some spam people. He may or may not have done this on purpose.
Of course money will come from this.
Posted by 77977797 (1 comment )
Link Flag
What I found
Yes, I have tried to use the Archive and have yet to be satisfied with the experience. I suppose I am not as much of a browser as my critics are. I seem to spend much of my time looking for new stuff with A9, although, now that they have severed their relations with Google, I go do Google directly when I am interested in images.
Posted by ghostofitpast (199 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The Internet Archieve is great in theory, but its implimentation is lacking
I think the Internet Archive is a great idea but I've had a lot of trouble accessing website archives from the past few years. Even when I can access the content, it is very slow. Has anyone else had this problem? Anyone know if they're doing anything about it?
Posted by Logomachist (4 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Both the Wayback Machine and the longterm self e-publishing feature are UNIQUE in the whole Internet and I found it useful and indispensable lots of times.

GO Internet Archive, GO!
Posted by ismaelolea (1 comment )
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