Brewster Kahle: Public Libraries and American Democracy

Since 18th century and pre-Constitution America, libraries have been a public space, a central repository where books could be borrowed, read and returned—a long defended democratic ideal of the public library. The nonprofit Internet Archive, founded in 1996, was built to be both the library of the Internet and the library on the Internet—a grand repository of knowledge. Its mission: universal access to all knowledge through the networked reach of the Internet, which allows the Archive to serve as a loc­­­al library for users with a browser anywhere.

During the global COVID pandemic closures of public libraries and schools in 2020, the Internet Archive created the National Emergency Library  to provide digitized books to students and the public. This changed the one book/one person model of lending. Subsequent lawsuits and responses have led to current federal court cases, led by major publishers, contending that controlled digital lending means “willful mass copyright infringement.” Countersuits filed and championed by the Archive propose that such an argument presents “obstacles to the free flow of information” and the guarantee of pubic  library lending access.

To explore these issues, join us for a conversation with Brewster Kahle, the founder and digital librarian of the Internet Archive, which now preserves more than 99 unique petabytes of data—the books, web pages, music, television and software of our cultural heritage, working with more than 950 library and university partners to create a digital library accessible to all. Kahle created the Internet's first publishing system, called the Wide Area Information Server, later selling the company to AOL. He also co-founded Alexa Internet, which helps catalog the web; he sold it to The Archive's Wayback machine is one of the most popular Internet websites.


Anne W. Smith


An Arts, Humanities, and Technology & Society Member-led Forum program. Forums at the Club are organized and run by volunteer programmers who are members of The Commonwealth Club, and they cover a diverse range of topics. Learn more about our Forums.

In Association with Internet Archive.

Photos courtesy the speaker.

Image - Brewster Kahle

Brewster Kahle

Founder and Digital Librarian, Internet Archive; Twitter @brewster_kahle

Image - Anne W. Smith

Anne W. Smith

Co-Chair, Arts Member-Led Forum, The Commonwealth Club of California—Moderator