Brewster Kahle's modest mission: Archiving everything

Adding books, and movies music to Web mix, Internet Archive founder wants to create "Library of Alexandria, v.2." Photos: Internet Archive

Brewster Kahle is on a mission. He wants the whole planet to have access to human knowledge. All human knowledge. And he's striving to make that possible--one byte at a time.

Ten years ago, Kahle founded the nonprofit

In addition to all that digitizing, and the free hosting of audio and video content, the archive also sponsors the project, which offers free wireless Internet in San Francisco.

Photos: Library of Alexandria

Kahle enthusiastically discusses his ambitious plan to build, make freely accessible and preserve what he calls--in reference to the legendary lost library of the ancient world--the "Library of Alexandria, v.2."

"Let's have a library system that is in the great traditions of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Carnegie and the Library of Alexandria," he says while showing a reporter around the Internet Archive's offices in San Francisco's Presidio. "If we are able to build that library again with the vision of the Greeks but the technology of the modern era, that's something to be proud of."

The 45-year-old Kahle, hyperarticulate and humble, often sports a quizzical expression that, with his spectacles; graying, curly hair; and bushy eyebrows, lends him a quirky, owlish look. He's described as a geek by friends, but a balanced one, whose hobbies range from sailing with his wife and two young sons to spending time at a theater camp in Vermont.

His favorite book is "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin," and he's recently taken to listening to a musical group called The Ditty Bops, which he describes as a cross between The Andrews Sisters and The Roches.

An alliance for free access
Kahle relishes his role as Internet archivist. The staggering volume of material to digitize--centuries of historic media, and new data appearing by the minute--doesn't daunt him. Commercial interests whose monetizing efforts threaten free universal access do. So he readily takes up the cause to fight for freely accessible information.

"If we lose (the library of human knowledge) to a corporate interest, I would have screwed up. Having it go to corporate hands is my worst nightmare," he says.

Which brings us to the Open Content Alliance, a joint effort by the Internet Archive, Yahoo and Microsoft to digitize library collections, including those of the University of California system and The University of Toronto. Unlike a similar project from Google, which allows users to read the digitized content only through Google's Web site, the OCA material will be searchable through any service and everyone will be encouraged to download books.

Also, the OCA is digitizing only books in the public domain, whereas Google is including copyright-protected titles in its scanning efforts and will offer small snippets of such texts to those searching its database. As a result of Google's approach, groups representing authors and publishers have sued the search giant.

"Some would like to control (information) so fewer people make money and have access. This is not right," Kahle says. "I really want the Enlightenment-era ideal of universal education."

Kahle is not opposed to companies turning a profit--he pocketed millions in 1995 when AOL bought his first company, WAIS, one of the first Internet search systems. Much of that windfall went to fund the Internet Archive, which has an annual budget of about $5 million.

"I'm not against people making money. In fact, it's absolutely essential," he says, adding that there's plenty of money to be made off services related to the distribution of free information.

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