Notable Librarian: Brewster Kahle

Brewster Kahle in one of the Internet Archive server rooms
(photo by Michael Short courtesy of The Chronicle / SF)

Universal access to all knowledge is what Brewster Kahle, Digital Librarian and founder of the Internet Archive, has been working towards for over twenty-five years. After graduating from MIT in the mid-1980s, Kahle began his focus developing technologies for the discovery of information and digital libraries. By 1992, he co-founded WAIS Inc., which was a precursor to the World Wide Web. After selling WAIS to America Online in 1995, the following year Kahle co-founded Alexa Internet, which helps catalog the Web. Concurrently, Kahle also founded the non-profit Internet Archive, which proudly boasts it “may be the largest digital library.” Alexa was sold to Amazon in 1999; the Internet Archive however, is still directed by Kahle.

Both optimist and utopian, Kahle firmly believes that the Internet Archive, his “Library of Alexandria, Version 2,” will make (and is making) the world a better place. Although it began in 1996, the Archive was not made available to the public until 2001 with the release of the Wayback Machine – a program that allows users to view archived versions of old webpages. Millions of websites and their associated images, documents, etc. are stored in an enormous database, which allow users to retrieve original source code from websites that may no longer be available, view previous versions of current websites as well as view websites that no longer exist.

Another ephemeral area the Internet Archive seeks to preserve is television. For over ten years the Archive has been recording twenty televisions channels from all over the world 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in DVD quality. This led to the lending of archived news, which started in 2009, and the establishment of pages such as Understanding 9/11: A Television News Archive, which is a valuable resource of 9/11 footage available to the public. Additionally, the Internet Archive first deployed its web archiving service, Archive-It in 2006. Archive-It is a subscription service for institutions; it offers hosting of their cultural materials online forever, provided those materials are available to the public and capable of full-text search. Other projects by the Internet Archive include their Bookmobile (which downloads public domain books via satellite and prints them for anyone anywhere), Open Community Networks (currently providing high-speed internet to the residents of San Francisco with the intention of expanding), NASA Images (the largest collection of NASA media available from a single, searchable site), Open Library (over 20 million books towards its goal of “one web page for every book ever published”) and much more.

Kahle is clearly a strong advocate for digitization and the Open Access movement. For instance, although his Open Library project may seem similar to the Google Books initiative, Kahle is quite critical of Google’s book digitization. He has spoken openly about his issues with Google Books exclusivity – not allowing access by other search engines – as well as the way in which they have “tip-toed” around copyright issues with their ‘snippet’ feature. Additionally, Kahle has criticized the information digitized by Google in the public domain (published before 1923), which is still bound by contracts and requires their permission to be copied or distributed. Kahle illustrates this point in his 2009 Washington Post article, How Google Threatens Books, when he states:

Through a simple Web search, a student researching the life of John F. Kennedy should be able to find books from many libraries, and many booksellers — and not be limited to one private library whose titles are available for a fee, controlled by a corporation that can dictate what we are allowed to read.

Kahle’s activism, advocacy, dedication and continuous hard work have earned him a plethora of accolades. For instance, in 2008 the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign awarded Kahle the Robert B. Downs Intellectual Freedom Award after he successfully challenged a national security letter from the FBI. Similarly, two years later Kahle received the Zoia Horn Intellectual Freedom Award. More recently, this year Kahle has already been inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame and given the first-ever Software and Information Industry of America Peter E. Jackson Innovation Award.

Though he comes across as somewhat idealistic, Brewster Kahle’s multitude of internet contributions to the library and information science field are invaluable and growing everyday (not to mention his contributions to other disciplines). This is just the tip of the iceberg, highlighting only the most significant of Kahle’s numerous achievements. We could use more inspirational librarians like Kahle working tirelessly with his mantra that “universal access to all knowledge …can be one of our greatest achievements.”

Additional References:

Brewster Kahle Wikipedia. Retrieved 15 October 2012.

Evangelista, Benny. Brewster Kahle’s Internet ArchiveThe San Francisco Chronicle. 15 October 2012. Retrieved 15 October 2012.

The Internet Archive. Projects and Bios. Retrieved 15 October 2012.

The iSchool at Illinois: 2008 Downs Intellectual Freedom Award Given to Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive. 16 December 2008. Retrieved 15 October 2012.

SIIA. SIIA Presents ‘Peter E. Jackson Innovation Award’ to Internet Archive Founder Brewster Kahle [Press Release]. 24 January 2012. Retrieved 15 October 2012.

TED Talks. Brewster Kahle Builds a Free Digital Library . September 2008. Retrieved 15 October 2012.


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