The famous library at Alexandria wasn't burned down with fire — it was destroyed by government mistreatment and neglect. Will today's great digital libraries like the Internet Archive suffer the same fate?
Photo via Internet Archive
Over at Medium, cultural critic Tim Maly has a terrific and thought-provoking essay about the design of contemporary server farms. He contrasts the high-security model of the typical farms used by startups and Google with the model preferred by Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, which holds (among many other things) the famous Wayback Machine.
Most companies treat their servers like vaults full of gold that must be guarded from looters. But Kahle turned the Archive, and its server farms full of scanned books, digitized films, and archival snapshots of the Internet, into a public building modeled on a library. It's housed in an old church close to San Francisco's Ocean Beach, and the server rooms are open to all. Writes Maly:
The Internet Archive's sanctuary server room is surprisingly quiet. This wasn't easy to arrange. Servers need fans to cool them and churches traditionally reflect and amplify sound to make the organ and singing louder. Fans plus echo chamber equals cacophony. So when the Internet Archive moved the servers into the nave, they had to install special sound-proofing on the walls to absorb and dampen the whirr. The result is that humans and machines can comfortably coexist in the space. Attend an afternoon lecture at the Internet Archive and you'll sit in sun-drenched pews while, behind you, little blue lights flash on and off to indicate the virtual presence of millions of visitors to archive.org.
Image by Jason Scott
Kahle is very conscious of the similarities between beseiged libraries in history, like Alexandria, and the Internet Archive. Because of the organization's copyright reformist scanning habits — and radical free speech approach to hosting video — they've already had many clashes with the legal system. Kahle worries a lot about the place being shut down once and for all.
The decision to put the servers on display is an aesthetic one, clearly. But there's a security aspect as well. In the short term, the servers are at risk of having some idiot walk up and damage them. So far, no one has and Kahle isn't too worried about that. He's more concerned about the long term. He's thinking in decades and centuries.
"What happens to libraries is that they're burned," says Kahle, "and they're typically burned by governments."
He knows the Internet Archive is unlikely to be literally set to torch by American agents, but as the place dances on the edges of copyright law, the possibility that it'll be shut down by a stroke of judicial pen looms large. No amount of physical security will protect you from the force of the law. Instead, Kahle chooses social protection. He wants to the Internet Archive to be beloved. He wants closing it down to be politically expensive. So the virtual library is in a physical gathering place — they're talking about opening up a café. The Internet Archive will be among the people and, with their support, the inevitable shuttering of the American branch will be forestalled a little while longer.
The library's best hope always resides in its community, and Kahle's approach seems the most likely to work. In a world where so much data is treated like private property, the Internet Archive offers us another model. Libraries may be an ancient idea, but they still seem ripped from a future world where knowledge truly is free.
Read the rest of Tim Maly's article at Medium — and please consider donating to the Internet Archive, which recently lost $600,000 worth of scanning equipment in an electrical fire (yes, sometimes libraries burn by accident too!)