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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.

Beyond his librarian and archivist role at the Internet Archive, Kahle serves on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and on the national digital strategy advisory board at The Library of Congress. He's also a plaintiff in Kahle v. Gonzales (formerly Kahle v. Ashcroft), a federal lawsuit challenging recent copyright term extensions. Kahle lost in the lower court and has appealed.

"What Brewster has done is extraordinarily significant, because he produced an archive of material that otherwise just wouldn't have existed," says Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, who spearheaded the Kahle lawsuit. "There have been many collectors of cultural works out there, but only Kahle is collecting the Internet. When he started collecting it, most people were not yet convinced that there was anything there to be collected."

Lessig remembers that during the preparations for the 1999 court challenge, Kahle and his son drove the Internet Archive's Bookmobile from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to attend the trial. "They stopped at high schools along the way, printing books, cutting and binding them for people to take for free," he says. "That was (Kahle's) way to make tangible what was really at stake in the public domain."

Rick Prelinger, a writer and filmmaker who donated a collection of historical films to the Internet Archive, remembers how easily Kahle recruited him to the cause when they first talked on the phone in 1999. Brewster said he had just been thinking that he wanted films for the Internet Archive, Prelinger says.

"How would you like to put your films online and make them accessible for free?'" recalls Prelinger, who taught for a time at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. "We'd only known each other for five seconds, and he was already suggesting I get involved in the West Coast gift economy."

"To meet Brewster and work with him was a life changing experience," he says. Kahle "thrives on access. He watches the outbound bandwidth figures for the Internet Archive to see how many bits (of data) they are giving away, and that's very exciting to him," Prelinger said. "He's a zealot about bits in and bits out and collecting and disseminating information."

Despite some hurdles, Kahle is an optimistic man. The pieces are in place to accomplish his dream, he says: Internet technology to digitize and distribute content; ideals of universal education; and political will.

"With those, I believe we can build a great library of humankind's thoughts and dreams," he says.