It’s Time for the Internet Archive to Grow Up

Ben Zotto
5 min readMar 22

Poor usability and careless downtime are hampering one of the internet’s most important resources.

The Internet Archive — the offices and the datacenter together — in the quiet Richmond neighborhood of San Francisco. (Photo: Ben Zotto)

The Internet Archive — critical research and content resource — was completely offline for well over an hour yesterday. Why? Because there was a windy storm in San Francisco, and they lost power:

PG&E is the local power utility, and serves the quiet residential neighborhood where the Archive has both its office and — in a quirk that’s charming and worrisome— its datacenter. Brewster Kahle (above) is the founder, director, and spiritual leader of the organization and service, and all he is able to do, apparently, is refresh the power company’s status page like any random household hoping the food in the fridge won’t spoil. This is an absolutely insane way to approach site reliability at one of the most important resources on the net.

The Archive hosts the “Wayback Machine,” of course, which has been preserving web site content from blinking out of existence for over 20 years. But it’s also the home to an absolutely endless collection of scanned and digitized material — books, yes, but also full runs of magazines, ephemera, a huge cache of vintage software, audio and television and film recordings. The Archive does its own digitization, partners with third-party archives, and gets uploads from dedicated volunteers — and makes all of this stuff available to serious researchers and the curious alike. Unfortunately, they seem to run the service as if it were only a quirky little side project, and it is riddled with not just poor reliability but also embarassingly outdated web design and usability.

All documents on the Archive appear in a web viewer, which allows paging and zooming and search. But that core web viewer only works correctly in desktop browsers and is nonfunctional on mobile. If I open a document on on my phone, I find that trying to pinch to zoom and page through will quickly have me stuck in a corner of a PDF page unable to move or scroll to the spot I want. This has been the case for years! I don’t know what the explanation for this is, but I know that the mobile web is old enough…