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Universal Access to All Knowledge

Jesse Bell
On Media (September 2016)

Thanks to a grant from San Diego Friends Meeting, Western Friend was able to hire the Internet Archive to produce electronic copies of virtually all issues of Western Friend and its predecessor publication, Friends Bulletin, going back to 1929. Those documents can now be found at: archive.org/details/westernfriend, and they will also be available on the Western Friend website soon.

Jesse Bell is the Senior Digitization Manager for the Western Region of the Internet Archive. Western Friend interviewed him on April 11, 2016. The following text contains excerpts from that interview.

Western Friend:  Would you talk a little bit about the origins of the Internet Archive?

Jesse Bell:  Sure. The Internet Archive started twenty years ago. The initial project was the Wayback Machine, which indexes web pages and preserves them, so people can go back to a specific day and see what a website looked like then. After that, we branched out to preserving books, software, audio, and video. That includes items that we ourselves upload to the site, but also we have a very active user community who upload all different types of items.

Our mission is universal access to all knowledge. We are very ambitious in terms of what we want to do. We’re always trying to expand, really taking our mission as a cue and seeing what else we can do to make information more accessible, to get more of it up online.

WF: It sounds like anyone can upload anything.

JB: That’s right. We leave it up to the user to decide what should and should not be available, what they want to make available. But if someone owns an album or other content, which they find was indexed and put into our search engine, and they didn’t want that content there – if they tell us, we’re very responsive in removing it. 

WF: And how would I find something I am looking for?

JB: Items on our site have been indexed by Archive.org through Google. Then within each document, everything we upload goes through Optical Character Recognition software, OCR. So once you are inside the book, you can search for any word in that book. That’s also helpful for looking at books on a very big level, big data. It opens up a lot of additional research possibilities.

For example, we did with Allen County Public Library in Indiana. They had purchased the complete U.S. Census on microfilm, from 1790 through 1930. We worked with them to digitize the complete set, and we now have that collection on archive. There are a lot of private companies that give access to that information, but you might have to pay a fee. So, this is something that we were able to make available. A lot of people who are doing research get a lot of value out of it.

One of our newer projects is a machine called “the table-top scribe.” This is the first time we are selling a product. Our hope is that if we can get the machine out to where the books are, we will be able to really expand our collection. There are a lot of books that can’t be sent to us to work with – they are rare, they’re fragile. So, instead of the books coming to us, we can send the machine to the books. It’s still early in the project, but we have over fifty of the table-top scribes out, and we hope it continues to expand.

WF: Where have the machines gone?

JB: There is one in the University of Victoria. There is one down the street at California Academy of Sciences. Harvard has purchased a couple. We just sent three to a university in Korea. There is one in a university in South Africa. We are really trying to get them out to as many places as possible.

WF: That reminds me . . . I understand you use a technology that does not damage the documents?

JB: That’s right. Our method of digitizing books is non-destructive, which is not the only option, but it is important to us as we work with libraries and universities that entrust us with their materials. Early on, we experimented with robots digitizing books. We learned that, really, people handle the materials much more effectively, and people are more efficient. It takes a lot of skill to effectively digitize a book. Books are bound in so many different ways, and need to be handled appropriately. We have a small team of people who work with our digitizing machine. This uses a V-shaped cradle so the book opens naturally, and then two panes of glass gently come down on the book until each page is flat. Then we take images of those pages, using consistent museum-grade lighting. When the image goes online, it’s important to us that it is a high quality image. Hopefully, it will be there forever.  ~~~

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