Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Internet gives birth to an 'official' online library

Sunday, June 24, 2007
by Adrian McCoy, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Post-Gazette's Adrian McCoy keeps an eye on the Internet and any online developments in arts and entertainment.

The Internet has been around long enough to have its own attic -- an ever-expanding repository of art, pop culture and information. It's the San Francisco-based Internet Archive, a Web site where surfers can spend hours exploring a universe of archived books, films, music and more.

It's not just any old online attic, though. In May, California officially recognized the Internet Archive, established in 1996, as a library. The designation makes the online archive eligible to apply for several federal grant programs that are administered by the state of California.

But even more importantly, says Brewster Kahle, Internet Archive founder and digital librarian, was the recognition that a digital library is on equal footing with a print material archive -- that the Internet is becoming "more a part of our real civic structure."

The IA Web site explains, "Libraries exist to preserve society's cultural artifacts and to provide access to them. If libraries are to continue to foster education and scholarship in this era of digital technology, it's essential for them to extend those functions into the digital world. Without cultural artifacts, civilization has no memory and no mechanism to learn from its successes and failures."

From vintage newsreels to recently uploaded V-logs, there's a good chance they are stored somewhere in the Internet Archive. Grateful Deadheads can follow the band in cyberspace from the '60s through the '90s in a series of live concerts preserved in their entirety. Or fans can download a recording of Allen Ginsberg teaching a poetry class, hear a Groucho Marx radio program or watch a move or classic cartoon.

In terms of pure entertainment, the IA is treasure trove. Much of the material it contains is either in the public domain or posted under a creative commons license, in which copyright holders can grant some distribution rights to the public.

Music fans can listen to live performances by contemporary artists or hear a radio broadcast from decades ago. Audio files can be downloaded or streamed. Many little-known bands, and a few well-known ones, have current shows posted here -- including Hank Williams III and Gomez (including their June 2006 show here at Mr. Small's Theatre).

There's a collection of vintage radio dramas and comedy programs: among them, Bob and Ray, "The Adventures of Superman," "The Inner Sanctum" and Groucho Marx and "You Bet Your Life," along with big band broadcasts and World War II news reports. The famous Orson Welles "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast, which touched off a nationwide panic about space invaders, is stored here, along with all the other Mercury Theater radio plays.

There are more than 800 feature films and shorts to watch, including George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead" -- one of the most popular movie downloads on the site -- and other classics such as "Rashomon," "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "Battleship Potemkin" and "His Girl Friday." There are many B horror movies as well, along with instructional and industrial films and classic animation from Warner Bros. and Max Fleischer.

Book lovers can browse through collections of old books, which are stored as PDF files, complete with illustrations. Some are e-books contributed by the Project Gutenberg online library.

The IA has gone a long way with digital preservation, too. In the deepest recesses of this online attic, The Wayback Machine stores snapshots of long-gone Web pages. According to Wikipedia, by 2006 the Wayback Machine occupied two petabytes (that's two quadrillion bytes) of memory storage space, and is growing rapidly.

For those who are nostalgic for their old computer programs, there's The Classic Software Preservation Project (CLASP), an archive of retail software dating back to the 1970s, along with collections of freeware and shareware.

All of this great stuff is accessible at no cost, but users are encouraged to donate to the site.

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