Friday, July 16, 2010

A Field Guide to the Internet Archives

On the steps of the Internet Archives.
If you love browsing through used book stores, you're gonna love the Internet Archives. My previous visits to IA online were interesting but not very productive as I'm too google and wiki-spoiled for their 30 second search results.

But I've recently rediscovered the Archives as a result of a trip to San Francisco. A friend asked if, while I was in the city, I could 'pop in' and request a hard copy of some texts they had online. With the aid of a GPS and two iPhone aps we found the Greek-columned building with its copper stamped doors which made, I thought, a lovely backdrop for a photo op with my daughter and grandkids.

Inside was a soft-spoken young man, just the sort you'd expect to find in a library. He wasn't able to fulfill our friend's request but told us we could get everything they had ...well, online. Of course we knew that, but there were rumors they had one of those Espresso instant book machines and I wanted to see one in action. Not all was lost though. It was kind of a kick to see the actual physical location of this gigantic digital library that scans over 1,000 books a day. And it inspired me to delve further into the Archives when I got home.

So here's my report. The Internet Archives, which provides free access to books and information that might otherwise be lost, has almost 300,000 video and moving images, 579,000 audio recordings and over 2 million books. They've even archived 80,000 live concerts. No wonder I had little luck trying for quick searches before.

Their home page has a Curator's choice in each category, in addition to its famous web page archive known as the Wayback Machine, currently sporting 150 billion pages. The non-profit IA is very much into preserving as much information as possible to prevent its loss or destruction, even referencing the Library of Alexandria, a place that's near and dear my heart, since it is the jumping off point in my upcoming book, Guardian Cats.

I've spent a good deal of time rummaging through the Archives now and have made some pretty interesting discoveries. If you're an Abe Lincoln fan, there's an autographed copy (1917) of "Latest Light on Abraham Lincoln" "including many heretofore unpublished incidents and historical facts concerning his ancestry, boyhood, family, religion, public life, trials and triumphs; illustrated with many reproductions from original paintings, photographs, etc." 

But don't think the Archives are just about obscure old books though. Take a look at this offbeat but intriguing machinima animation, a strange love story called Cuckoo Clock, the first in the Cirque du Machinima series.

Maybe you're searching for actual radio signals from celestials objects? You can find them in the Star Journal, which features ambient music composed around a series of field recordings made from a radio telescope. The Archives has lots of ambient music, but if you want to experience a live Grateful Dead concert instead, there's no shortage of those either.

I've barely scratched the surface of this vast digital library but it's making me rethink any biases I may have had. Although I'm adamantly opposed to transforming our public and college libraries into 'bookless' libraries, these digital archives with their high quality scans are an invaluable resource towards preserving many books which would be otherwise lost. Anyone can upload texts, audio and video images to the library, if they have the rights to share.

Before you take your own journey through the Archives, here's some suggestions to make your online 'field trip' more enjoyable:

  • First, get a cup of coffee and be prepared to stay awhile so you can enjoy all the cool things you will discover.

  • Create a user name and password so you can bookmark your findings. You'll lose stuff, the same as if you set a book down and went wandering down another row of stacks. It labyrinthian.

  • If you see something interesting in the Curator's Choices, you'd better click it right away because the links change each time the page is refreshed. I learned that the hard way.

  • Everything is viewable and downloadable in a variety of formats including Kindle and something called Daisy, which is an audio book format for people with print disabilities," including blindness, impaired vision, dyslexia or other issues.

  • Do try reading the 'online' book formats with their clean, clear images and clickable pages that include every page, even the old book covers and bookplates.

  • Be aware of the large variety of searching and sorting options to help you find what you're looking for.  
Some more of my discoveries I wanted to share:
  • From the audio files: crime classics, horror and Old Time Radio
  • From the video files: Here's one of those 'fun' education films some of us will remember from the 50's. This one's from 1949 called Dating Do's and Don'ts
  • Also from the videos files: Stock video footage which might be useful for book trailers, available for use under the Creative Commons license
  • Something from the Children's Library: A Subject Tag Cloud which is a pretty cool way to search.
  • From the text files: an example of the quality of a beautifully scanned book with rich color and superb illustrations from the Victorian era, Abroad (1882) is about 2 children on a voyage from England to France and Europe.
And last but not least, I couldn't resist including this little gem called 'The Private Lives of Cats'. The Guardian Cats rated it five star.


  1. What an amazing resource!

    Hello! I thought I'd drop by your fab blog and say a big hello! :-)

    The British Library is also in the throes of housing something similar and I think most academic libraries are keen to have the same! It's truly invaluable!

    I'm at work at the moment so will view that lovely kitty clip when I'm home but thanks for the link! And thanks for such a lovely insight to this fab place!!!

    Take care

  2. Hi Rahma, this site sounds amazing. Will surely check it out. Thanks for the link.

  3. Rachna and Old Kitty: Thanks for stopping in. I hope you get a chance to check out some of my amazing discoveries.


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