As the Internet Archive turns 25, remember that a web site’s never too old to need a backup.
A quarter of a century ago, the web got a function that many computers today still lack: a backup service.
That’s when the Internet Archive launched in bits and starts in San Francisco, staging its first comprehensive indexing of the web in October of 1996. It’s since become a key resource for readers and researchers who rely on this non-profit’s collection of more than 622 billion pages to check a site that suddenly went offline or see how a corner of the internet looked months or years ago.
Most of that use happens at an Archive tool launched Oct. 24, 2001: the Wayback Machine, which provides a “versioned” backup of the web like what Apple’s Time Machine software does for files on a Mac.
Type in a page address or words describing its home page, then select a year from the timeline atop of the page to wander through its history. Or click on the link counting how many times the Archive has done a “capture” of the page to pick a particular date from an onscreen calendar.
The Archive’s copies of these pages may take some time to display and sometimes lack images or media widgets. But mostly, they will just look antique; the Dec. 24, 1996 edition of USA TODAY, the oldest available on the Archive, speaks to a simpler school of web design and a smaller range of screen sizes.
It’s less obvious that you can add to the Archive (which gets funding from a variety of foundations as well as individual donations) by saving a page into it. In the increasingly unlikely event of a publicly-readable page not appearing in its results, you can paste its address into the “Save Page Now” form on the Wayback Machine’s home page.
A Chrome extension, Safari extension, and Firefox add-on can further streamline using the Wayback Machine by automatically offering to fetch an archived copy of a page that has sunk offline. The Chrome app worked as advertised Thursday when it surfaced a saved version of the May 18, 2010 story I wrote for the Washington Post about a visit to the Archive’s offices, including the story comments, in which founder Brewster Kahle showed up to answer reader questions.
“I expected the practice of archiving the web to become widespread,” Kahle wrote in an email Tuesday. But instead of having other archives set up in competition with his project he launched in part with money from selling one startup to AOL, he found that cloud-based services have made collaborative backup easier.
Today, they allow the organization to offer Archive It, a service that 800-plus libraries employ to build their own collections and expand the Archive’s. Kahle called it a “very efficient way for many to build collections that they can copy back into their libraries.”
As the Archive marks its 25th anniversary, he and other supporters have been calling attention to the risks of overly broad copyright laws, licensing restrictions and nation-by-nation blocks constricting access to human creativity online. The Archive’s anniversary site features a Wayforward Machine that suggests how the web might look 25 years from now: an endless series of dialogs barring access to pages on various legal grounds.
“At the same time millions of people are finding their voice and communities through posting on blogs, groups, threads and podcasts we see the consolidation of power in very few hands,” Kahle wrote. “The continued rise of global corporations is consolidating control over our flow of information, not just tech companies but publishing companies, and now these companies are merging and blurring.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Internet Archive at 25: Take the wayback machine back to 1996