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Internet Archive Is a Beautiful Storage Bin for Our Online Memories

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

In the Internet Age, monoculture is unachievable. But there remain a few things that we can all agree on. The Ringer is looking at this rarefied group all week. These are our Undeniables.

I write about the internet on the internet for a living, so in theory, I should yearn to gratitude-French Tim Berners-Lee for making my career. However, I do not want to do that, because the internet is 4 percent good and 96 percent a damp bathing suit crotch full of cat litter. Sometimes I wish the internet would dry up, like that episode of South Park where it’s Grapes of Wrath for websites.

I know erasing the internet and its digital history to get rid of the repellent pockets would be like torching a library just because it carried See, I Told You So by Rush Limbaugh. I also know preserving our digital history is crucial. For 20 years, the San Francisco–based nonprofit Internet Archive has been quietly building a vast catalog of digital artifacts, internet history, and, uh, tens of thousands of unreleased Grateful Dead live concert recordings.

Internet Archive works with the Open Library to offer 10 million books and texts from the Library of Congress, Project Gutenberg, the New York Public Library, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, among many others — it’s the sort of collection of resources that used to only be available to someone with a fancy university affiliation, except even better than that, because the range of materials is far vaster than anything offered at a single institution.

Brewster Kahle created the Internet Archive in 1996, at the same time the computer engineer was cofounding a web traffic analytics service called Alexa Internet. Amazon bought Alexa a few years later, making Kahle a rich man. Vast wealth didn’t deter the idealistic archivist from continuing with his less financially lucrative project; Kahle remains dedicated to his mission to make the web’s history accessible.

Kahle’s creation became a home for other equally golden document-gathering projects. Want a searchable database of political ads from the primary election hellscape? Internet Archive made one. How about an archive of all the television news from 9/11? They have that too, in addition to an enormous collection of searchable television news clips. There are incredible niche collections, like the Malware Museum (which houses vintage computer virus graphics) and FedFlix (a space for government training videos).

The Internet Archive’s idealistic mission to spread knowledge is reminiscent of computer programmer and activist Aaron Swartz’s campaigns to make public-interest documents more accessible. (You can also read the unfinished manuscript Swartz was working on at the time of his death at the Internet Archive, as well as his court documents and media interviews.)

Digitizing books and documents does more than offer information — it can help surface it. After Indiana’s Allen County Public Library digitized for an Internet Archive project, its senior digitization manager Jeff Sharpe wrote that an online reader alerted them to a previously unnoticed land survey written by Daniel Boone.

Instead of reading about Daniel Boone, you can also pretend to be a fellow pioneer by indulging your nostalgia for Oregon Trail — Internet Archive has several collections of vintage games, from arcade offerings to Leisure Suit Larry or Microsoft’s SkiFree.

Apart from its more traditional library holdings, the Internet Archive also actively creates documentation about the digital world. It created the Wayback Machine, software that crawls the web capturing images to preserve how sites look at different moments in time. This means the Wayback Machine lets you look at a website’s history — instead of only seeing how it looks today, you can see how it has looked five years ago, or how it changed after a redesign. The Ringer, for instance, didn’t always look this spiffy.

The Wayback Machine
The Wayback Machine

The Wayback Machine is an incredible resource for historians, researchers, journalists looking to see when sites get stealthily edited, people who like gawking at corny web design … really anyone who enjoys puttering around online. And it’s getting a search engine in 2017, which will make digging around even easier.

Few things in the tech world are as unambiguously good as the Internet Archive. It kept Kim Kardashian’s MySpace antics trapped in Juicy Couture–branded amber, and gives us access to the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It liberates vintage cigarette commercials from microfilm and makes NASA’s starscapes searchable. It shows us when we’ve made progress, and when we haven’t. It both surfaces walled-off knowledge and creates a living document of the digital world. It’s a national treasure.