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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Open Sesame by Matt McGann '00

A look at Brewster Kahle '82 and the Internet Archive.

I was not seated on a jury today at the Middlesex Superior Court, so I’m back to work tomorrow, hopefully posting a new Questions Omnibus tomorrow evening.

While waiting to be called from the jury pool, I had plenty of time to read both the New York Times and the Boston Globe. The Globe’s business section today had a nice column by Scott Kirsner on Brewster Kahle ’82 (right, courtesy Library of Congress) and the Internet Archive. Check out an excerpt:

The Internet Archive has the ambitious goal of offering ”universal access to human knowledge,” and, in pursuit of that, in a small white wooden building that once served the base as a general store, the archivists are collecting every sort of digital file imaginable, from Web pages to podcasts, software programs to movies, presidential phone conversations to recordings of Cowboy Junkies concerts.

Brewster Kahle is the MIT-educated former entrepreneur who began building the library in 1996, for the simple reason that ”nobody else seemed to be doing it,” he says. Now, he realizes that he has undertaken a task with no obvious stopping point. In 2001, he started recording 20 television channels, continuously, and recently he has had volunteers scanning thousands of out-of-print books. Each month, the Internet Archive collects the equivalent of one Library of Congress, says Kahle. The collection, available at, has already surpassed one petabyte. That’s a million gigabytes. […]

While studying at MIT in the 1970s, Kahle says, there were two big ideas in the air. ”One idea was encryption,” he says. ”The other was to build a digital library so people could have the Library of Congress on their desktops.”

After graduating, Kahle chose to follow an entrepreneurial path. He was present at the creation of Thinking Machines, the Cambridge-based supercomputer company, and later started WAIS, a company that helped publishers put information on the Web and make it searchable. WAIS was acquired by America Online, and Kahle’s next company, a search and ranking service called Alexa Internet, was bought by Kahle used the money from those two transactions to start and fund the Internet Archive, which is a nonprofit. […]

The Internet Archive also sponsors a small fleet of Internet bookmobiles — which operate in San Francisco, Egypt, India, and Uganda — that allow people to find full-text books online and print out their own paperback copies. Kahle says the cost of lending a book out can approach $2 for some libraries; printing out a black-and-white copy on-demand can cost as little as 50 cents. […]

When the organization runs up against technical barriers that seem insurmountable, it chisels away at them. It couldn’t find a storage device on the market that was capable of holding a petabyte of data inexpensively, and consuming little power. So the Internet Archive simply built one on its own, called the petabox. (You can build your own in the basement, since they made the design available as an open-source document.) [..]

Technologists are often accurately depicted as people more interested in the possible than the past. Brewster Kahle and his colleagues defy that depiction, using technology in clever ways to preserve our shared past.

[Read the entire column]

One of the fun parts of the Internet Archive is the Wayback Machine, where you can see archival versions of your favorite web page, going back to the early days of the web. Here are a few interesting examples:

Perhaps the bottom line to this story is that MIT values openness. Besides the Internet Archive, you can also see this with OpenCourseWare, MITWorld, MIT’s commitment to the open source software movement, the accepting attitudes towards guests practiced by the MIT libraries, etc. I like MIT’s commitment to openness; it was something I could sense from my very first visit to campus. I guess these blogs are another good example of MIT’s openness. We’re happy to be open and available for you.

10 responses to “Open Sesame”

  1. Sam says:

    Yeah… I’ve always loved the internet archive, and din’t realize that it was started by an MIT alum. It’s great for reading old, secret blog entries that people deleted.

  2. MJ Kamalov says:

    wow. i love this archive! it’s very interesting to watch how the designs of different sites changed smile

  3. MIT Alum says:

    Matt, did you see “Tommy Lee goes to College” last night? Do you have any opinions on it?

  4. Mikhail says:

    Matt, if I have a necessary third recommendation, can it be on a third official recommendation form? Alternatively, can it be just a letter? Which is better or preferred?

  5. Mikhail says:

    Matt, also: I took a course over the summer that was taught by a graduate student. Is it true that a recommendation from her, being only a graduate student, is frowned upon?

  6. Saad Zaheer says:


    I do not know what should be the answer to your first question about the recommendation being a letter or a third form. I, however sent an extra recommendation which was in the form of a letter. But, personally I would consider this quite trivial; I never thought about printing a third recommendation form, maybe I would have done it that way had the thought occured to me.

    Now, as far as a graduate student teacher is concerned, I guess it does not really matter who writes your recommendation. The only requirement is that the teacher should know you well, and should write candidly. MIT does not see who’s writing but rather what is written. Get recommendations from whoever you think is appropriate. Am I right, Matt?

  7. Eric says:


    I had no idea this site existed. A peta byte, jeese, I had no idea that existed either. It makes me wonder how much data they will end up with (not that they will ever finish), but they are going to have to start inventing new names for their amounts of data soon lol.

  8. Stephanie says:

    Wow, I think the funny/sad part about this archive is that I actually remember when the old format was used on the MIT page. And then the day they changed to the current format, which I think was April 1 (April Fools Day) with an image of the dome with a banner over it saying “Ceci n’est pas un hack” or something similar (this is not a hack, in French). (i found something similar to that image:

    Anyway, I didn’t realize that archive was started by an MITer either.


    okay, time to stop being a nerd…


  9. Mikey says:

    omg, the archives of the MIT homepage bring back such fond memories from freshman year…*sniff*