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The Way We Are


The Internet’s Archive

May 8th 2012

grateful dead at barton hall poster

May 8, 1977. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University’s barn-like Barton field house, specifically. On that particular Sunday evening, for the princely sum of $7.50—$6.50 for students—you could buy one general admission ticket (assuming you could find any for sale) to hear a performance by the Grateful Dead.

For the Dead it was just another gig on an unending tour; the Ithaca stop was sandwiched between New Haven’s Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum and Buffalo’s War Memorial Coliseum. Fairly to form, the band played 20 songs that night, starting with “New Minglewood Blues” and wrapping with the classic “One More Saturday Night.” Along the way they hit a number of fan favorites like “Fire on the Mountain,” “Not Fade Away” and “Morning Dew.”

At the time, May 8th was just another performance by the Dead, an enduring American band that had long attracted its own rolling culture of scruffy fans, hippies, dope-smokers, and assorted others who followed the band from show to show. But for true “Deadheads,” it’s much, much more than that. For Deadhead Nation, May 8 is forever known simply as “Barton Hall.”

35 years later, the Dead’s spring 1977 tour is now the stuff of legend, with the Barton Hall show the most celebrated performance of the band’s career. “I started hearing from other Deadheads that the Barton show was famous,” Brad Krakow tells the Cornell Chronicle. One of the lucky attendees that night, Krakow characterized the Dead’s performance as “tight, no mistakes and inspired. It is funny now when friends ask if that is ‘The’ Barton Hall when visiting. It is an icon.”

But don’t take Krakow’s word for it. Download the entire concert and decide for yourself. In fact, why not download every concert the Grateful Dead ever played to compare and contrast? Go ahead—you can do it all for free, and without any copyright worries, thanks to a website called The Internet Archive.

A Virtual Library of Alexandria

Founded in 1996 in San Francisco, the Archive is a digital warehouse of just about everything. Photographs, drawings, texts, recorded audio and video, the Archive storehouse is too vast to ever fully explain or explore, and it’s getting larger every day.

Want to see outtakes from the interviews from Glenn Greenwald’s 2004 movie “Outfoxed”? You can find them here on the archive for free. Want to download author Richard Willard Armour’s 1963 memoir Through Darkest Adolescence? You can get text, Kindle, PDF or just about any other version with one easy click. Old movies, live concerts, classic photographs? Those and much, much more are stored in the memory banks of the Archive.

Founder Brewster Kahle says he wanted to create a virtual Library of Alexandria online; a place where much of the stuff of our daily lives could be preserved for future generations, and not lost forever, as much of the content of the ancient Alexandria library was so doomed. Kahle calls himself simply a “digital librarian,” but there’s nothing simple about the Internet Archive—or Kahle’s ambitions.

In essence, Kahle wants to build a one-world library: one place where web content of all types can be sorted, stored, and accessed for free. Says Kahle: The web is ephemeral. About every 100 days a webpage is changed or deleted. So keeping up with the web is important. Next we started doing television, then movies, and now books.

Take books, for example. If you want to share a book you own that isn’t int the Archive, you can scan it yourself and upload it, or just take it to one of the Archive’s hundred-odd scanning locations, where they’ll do it for you. Of course, at least some of those books are still under copyright, but due to special legal provisions regarding the blind and dyslexic, the Archive can store and even ‘lend’ these books, too.

The same is true for other forms of media. IA archivists work to ensure copyright protections where they’re are legitimate, but with the wealth of material that’s fallen out of (or never been protected by) copyright, the Archive’s holdings are vast. The items may be mundane, but that’s no matter to Kahle. The more, the better.

One of the most popular features on IA is something called “The WayBack Machine.” Starting sometime in 1997, Archive engineers began trawling the web and grabbing screenshots of millions of webpages. Want to know what VOA’s webpage looked like—and what was news—back on, say, November9 2000? The Archive has it (and boy, have things changed since then!)

Preserving the Forgettable

A lot of the items on the Internet Archive may be momentarily interesting, but one could ask about their various long term values. For instance, do 100 newsreels from 1940s America say anywhere as much important as just one classic book like Death of a Salesman or For Whom The Bell Tolls? Probably. But like with everything, context is all-important, and what the Archive is saving includes much of the ephemeral context that would just end up in history’s dustbin.

That said, there’s very little forgettable about many of the Archive’s holdings, such as the Dead’s Barton Hall classic. Years ago, the band made a decision: rather than block crowd recordings and file thousands of copyright lawsuits, they agreed to make all of their concert recordings taken from the mixing board copyright clear. In other words if you had the right equipment, you could plug into the main soundboard, record any show, and do with it whatever you wanted. That’s exactly how Barton Hall, May 8 1977 ended up on the Internet Archive; it and over 100,000 other live concerts.

It may soon be forgotten that 35 years ago, the day of the concert, a freak snowstorm hit Ithaca, leaving hundreds of Deadheads nowhere to go but to break into a nearby dorm to warm up (and for other activities.) But thanks to the Archive, what happened during that concert will live on for decades

Doug Bernard writes from the digital frontier for VOA News, from where this article is adapted.

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