The people's librarian

February 7, 2003

Chris Johnston meets the e-pioneer who is trying to encourage libraries to widen access to unpublished academic work by harnessing the power of the net

Brewster Kahle calls the internet the "people's library", because it is "what students now use for most of their research". He quotes an American university librarian who says the net has become the information resource of first resort for millions of people. For them, "if it's not on the web, it doesn't really exist", Kahle says.

From many people's perspective, he says the internet has become the library. In his view, this phenomenon has two consequences: the need to create a library from the web, and making our best knowledge and information available online.

Kahle has already tried to turn the net into a library by creating the Internet Archive in 1996. The San Francisco-based venture is one of the world's largest databases and takes a periodic snapshot of the web to preserve its contents for posterity.

It already contains more text than all the books in the Library of Congress, Kahle says. That comes as less of a surprise when you consider that the archive examines some 2 billion pages available on the net every two months.

The New York City-born 42-year-old is turning his attention to the role that national libraries can play in documenting the net. Although it is the role of these "very well-funded" institutions to preserve and provide public access to published material, he says they have largely failed to embrace the digital age.

Kahle has visited the UK several times to talk to staff at the British Library, a member of the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC), which aims to conserve Britain's digital resources. The 19 organisations involved include the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc), the Consortium of University Research Libraries, the Public Record Office and the Publishers Association.

Discussions with the British Library have been very encouraging, Kahle says, although it has made no commitments yet. "The library knows there is a lot of good material out there on the web, as well as a lot of schlock , so it has to work out if it should try to collect everything in the .uk domain, or just a few things."

Some misconceptions among librarians still exist, he has found. "Whereas people used to do research by going to the library, they are now doing it from home, so the library has to be accessible from people's homes. But that is not how libraries think of themselves. They think: 'They will have to come and use a special terminal here next to the filmstrips'", a comment that makes Kahle laugh. That attitude is just not acceptable: "This is not just another special collection."

There is some light on the horizon, though. Kahle says Jisc and the DPC are working to bridge the divide between the internet and libraries. Preserving university websites is becoming more of a concern as growing numbers of academics publish material on the web that never appears in print form. He hopes that libraries in British universities can set an example for their US counterparts, which are being supportive but have so far taken little action. However, he says there are some success stories, and these "are being watched very carefully".

Some sceptics claim that preserving the web is like entering uncharted waters. Kahle, however, believes that the same model that libraries use for print works can be applied. "I think of these materials as published. They look like pages and we talk about them as pages, so let's preserve them.

Part of the role of libraries is to provide permanent access to out-of-print materials."

Kahle was inspired to set up the Internet Archive (also known as the Wayback Machine) and the earlier Wide Area Information Server, which put information from publishers online before the rise of the Web, by Carnegie Mellon University professor Raj Reddy. It was Reddy who maintained:

"Universal access to all human knowledge is within our grasp."

With a terabyte, or 1 million megabytes - 25 times the amount of memory on a 40 gigabyte (40,000 MB) personal computer - costing just $2,000 (£1,300) or so, he believes it is eminently possible. "It's an extremely inspiring goal. It gets me jumping out of bed in the morning. The idea that a kid in Africa could have access to the best medical lectures and latest research, as well as the classics and anything else - what a wonderful world that would be."

Internet Archive: www.archive.org

Digital Preservation Coalition: www.dpconline.org

PRESERVING THE WORLD'S MEMORY BANK

The Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC), launched in February 2002, aims to ensure the UK's digital resources are conserved and to work with others internationally to ensure that the global digital memory and knowledge base is not lost.

The coalition recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Library of Australia to work collaboratively on digital preservation activities.

The DPC has published a guide - Preservation Management of Digital Materials: A Handbook - for institutions involved in, or contemplating creating and/or acquiring, digital materials. An online version is now available on the DPC's website at www.dpconline.org

Lynne Brindley, chief executive of the British Library, chairs the DPC.

Neil Beagrie, Jisc's director of digital preservation, is company secretary.

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