Prior to attending the 2012 APLIC Conference, I was only partly aware of Brewster Kahle and his work with the Internet Archive Project (IAP). I knew that he was the person behind one of my favorite resources on the Web: the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. I’ve used this valuable tool for both work and leisure when seeking out historic website pages now missing from the Web. But while listening to his presentation at the conference, I soon realized that the Wayback Machine is just a tiny part of his vision.
What I wasn’t fully aware of is Brewster’s infectious passion for the idea of “universal access to all knowledge.” The no-frills Internet Archive website belies this passion. Don’t get me wrong; I understand why the website is text-heavy and light on design (quicker load-time and less distraction from the content). I just never took the time to poke around on the site and read more about the Archive’s mission, and I felt bad about that in retrospect. After hearing Brewster speak, though, I suspect he would care less about whether people know why the Internet Archive exists and more about if they know it exists at all. Certainly its underpinning philosophy drives the project, but end users don’t need to dwell on that to benefit. The important thing is that people know this amazing resource is available online and free of charge.
I think it’s safe to say that all librarians support the idea of facilitating access to information. That is essentially our job description in a nutshell. But Brewster’s take on it is different from the traditional librarian-as-intercessor model. Placing an entire library online, freely accessible to the public, minimizes this traditional role of a librarian. It gets at the heart of what seems to be a shift in the roles we as librarians play in modern information discovery. These days we are at a crossroads in librarianship: should we continue to provide access to print materials for on-site patrons or do we move toward shuttering our physical doors and fully embracing digital collections as the libraries of the future, opening them up online to the world?
In his presentation, Brewster made the case that the cost of digitizing a library’s collection is the same as the cost of constructing a building to house that collection. And yet a digital collection can be made available to an exponentially larger audience. To this end, Brewster is asking libraries to digitize their collections and send the files to be included in his digital library. The University of Toronto has already donated 250,000 scanned books! For books still under copyright, online patrons can check them out from the Ebook and Texts Archive on archive.org (a copyrighted book can only be checked out by one user at a time, just like in a traditional library). However, those books in the public domain don’t require a check-out process and can be enjoyed simultaneously by multiple users.
How each library decides to move through the crossroads will vary. Some libraries are indeed closing their doors and devoting all their attention to online services. Patron demand can dictate this in certain cases. However, I think that for the majority of libraries, a compromise is the more likely route. Traditional libraries can still keep their doors open to meet the needs of walk-in patrons, but they can also reach a wider global audience by turning over digital copies of their collections to the IAP. The Project will even loan out its state-of-the-art scanning equipment to help achieve this goal. Together we can help build the biggest online library in the world. It seems like a win-win situation, with everyone benefiting from increased access to information. Why shouldn’t we have the best of both print and digital worlds?