Is this the world's largest library?
The Internet Archive, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, is building a digital library of books, papers, recordings, movies, Internet sites, and much more. Like many other libraries, this digital library provides free access to researchers, historians, scholars, and the general public. This is a great resource for genealogists and many, many others.
The Internet Archive is attempting to store more than just the Internet. In fact, the organization hopes to store either an original or a copy of every book ever published, every movie, every video, every newspaper, every sound recording (and it has some great recordings of Grateful Dead concerts that were never released previously), old time radio shows, and even a broad range of software-related materials including shareware, freeware, video news releases about software titles, speed runs of actual software game play, previews and promos for software games, high-score and skill replays of various game genres, and the art of filmmaking with real-time computer game engines. Whew!
In fact, The Internet Archive has thousands of documents of interest to genealogists, including every surviving page of the U.S. Census records from 1790 through 1940. These census records are all available free of charge, as is everything else in The Internet Archive. The census records are not indexed, however, and can only be searched in The Internet Archive by manually going through the records, one page at a time. Thousands of other records of genealogy interest are also available, including many military records, local, state, and federal records, and much more. Many of these documents do not exist elsewhere online and, again, access to everything on The Internet Archive is always free of charge.
Like the aforementioned census records, these records are not indexed, and there is no central search capability. You find information in The Internet Archive in the same manner as most any other traditional library: you search the catalog of items available, find the item you seek, and then search through that item manually. Most of us have done this for years in traditional libraries but have become "spoiled" in recent years by online databases that index every word. The Internet Archive still uses the old-fashioned method.
Not only does The Internet Archive store items in the English language, but it also stores as many foreign language items as possible.
Of course, it will be impossible to store EVERY item as some have been lost over the years. The goal of the Internet Archive is to store as many items as possible in order to prevent further losses and then to make those items available to anyone who is interested.
Not everything is stored in digital format. The Internet Archive also has thousands of feet of shelving to store millions of books covering almost every topic imaginable. However, access to these physical books is limited. Where possible, the books have been scanned, and electronic access is available to everyone at no charge. Of course, scanning is a never-ending process. If you do not find what you seek, you might try again in a few months to see if it has been added since your last visit. Keep in mind that items still under copyright generally are not available to the public via the web site although there are a few exceptions where the copyright holders have granted permission.
We are in danger of losing some of our most important historical documents. Books, films, and other means of publishing are notoriously fragile and easily damaged or lost. Many early movies were recycled to recover the silver in the film. The Library of Alexandria - an ancient center of learning that contained a copy of every book in the world - was eventually burned to the ground. The City Archives of Cologne, Germany, including some documents more than 1,000 years old, suffered a building collapse with very few documents ever recovered. The Abruzzo, Italy, State Archives was destroyed by an earthquake in 2009. Most of the surviving documents were also lost when the decision was made to not send in recovery teams due to imminent danger of further collapse of the building. Other floods, fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and similar disasters destroy several paper-based archives every year.
Even now, early in the 21st century, no comprehensive archives of television or radio programs exist.
Without cultural artifacts, civilization has no memory and no mechanism to learn from its successes and failures. And paradoxically, with the explosion of the Internet, we live in what Danny Hillis has referred to as our "digital dark age." The Internet Archive hopes to provide this memory.
The Digital Library also hosts an archive of web sites, called The Wayback Machine. Would you like to look at a Web page as it existed several years ago? Perhaps you want to look for information that was available on the Web at one time but has since disappeared. The Wayback Machine may be the tool you need. Now you can surf the Web as it was.
The Wayback Machine is named after the famous Mr. Peabody's WABAC (pronounced way-back) machine from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show. This free service makes it possible to surf pages stored in the Internet Archive's web archive. The same service also archives text files, audio, and many video files.
The Wayback Machine was unveiled on October 24, 1996, and has been recording Web pages ever since. I have used it to look at Web pages that I have been maintaining for years, some of which are not connected with genealogy. It was interesting to look at some of my older HTML work. I also looked at some of today’s more popular genealogy Web sites. I must say that Ancestry.com has come a long way from their home page of October 28, 1996! It was then known as "Ancestry Search." (See http://web.archive.org/web/19961028055925/http://www.ancestry.com/).
Both The Wayback Machine and its host, The Internet Archive, are among the lesser-used gems that genealogists need to learn about and use frequently. Everything on this huge site is available free of charge. The Internet Archive is funded solely by donations.
You can search The Wayback Machine at: http://archive.org/.
WARNING: The Internet Archive is not a simple, easy-to-use site. With millions of items available in many different formats, you will need to spend some time to become familiar with its use. Then again, the same is true of most any large, traditional library. The Internet Archive is no different.
Perhaps you’re wondering what the future looks like for this gargantuan project. Brewster Kahle is founder and chairman of the board of The Internet Archive as well as a founder of WAIS Inc. and Alexa Internet. A few months ago, I had an opportunity to interview Brewster Kahle, and our conversation was recorded. Brewster talked about the then-current status of The Internet Archive as well as what he hoped to accomplish in the future. You might want to listen to what Brewster Kahle had to say.
A video recording of that conversation is still available on this newsletter's web site at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2011/02/video-an-interview-with-brewster-kahle.html and, of course, a copy of it is also available at The Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/AnInterviewWithBrewsterKahle.
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