When I was about ten a friend of my father’s noticed my obsession with the queens of England throughout history, and gave me a couple of volumes of Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England. He offered the entire set, but my father refused to let me have them all, for which I’ve never quite forgiven him. I was entranced–not only were they books on one of my favourite topics, they were old books that looked like they’d come out of a Victorian library somewhere. I think until that point the oldest books I’d been allowed to get my grubby hands on probably dated from the 1950s. I was hooked, both on Strickland and antique books.
I wanted to complete the set, but none of the second-hand bookshops I looked in had even heard of Agnes Strickland–she’d been out of print too long, and while entertaining, the books aren’t of much use to serious historians today. A local antiquarian bookseller had a full set, but they were in better bindings (and much better condition) than mine and cost upwards of $12,000, which to me was a fantastical amount of money to charge for a handful of books, even if they were a hundred years old. I kept hoping I’d find a library that had a set, but never did, even when I got to St. Andrews where the library and bookstores had an abundance of old books to browse through.
I finally discovered the Internet Archive in 2007 after I’d returned to Atlanta, and to me it was like stumbling into wonderland. It had pdf copies of every volume of Strickland’s series, and I didn’t have to pay to download a copy. Aside from that, there were scans of books on just about every obscure topic I could come up with. The Paston Letters. Biographies of lesser-known figures from the French Revolution. A collection of the music scores owned by Jane Austen’s family, in case you were wondering what they played on the pianoforte when they got bored. The grammars and exercise books for French, German, Latin, and Greek used in schoolrooms in the UK over the past two or three centuries. Several of the books and pamphlets on abolition and the law cases referenced in the film Belle.
Once I’d downloaded a ridiculous number of texts, I started looking at what else was available, and realized just how impressive a resource the Internet Archive is. There is just so much here. Dozens of silent and black and white films, including She Done Him Wrong, starring Mae West and a young Cary Grant–not his first film, but it was only his second year as a movie star. His Girl Friday and Night of the Living Dead were also available the last time I checked (which was a while ago, admittedly). Reefer Madness is in there somewhere, too. The Librivox collection is now hosted on the site–a public effort to collect readings of every book no longer in copyright. (If you have any interest in building up a portfolio as a voice actor, this is a useful thing to do. If you’re a listener, it’s a bit hit-and-miss–some readings are excellent, some not so much, but it’s an amazing effort on the part of the contributors, and like the Archive, there is no charge for the downloads but donations are appreciated.) There’s a collection of old radio broadcasts, from the original Gunsmoke to Winston Churchill’s speeches. They have a collection of geneaology resources that you don’t have to pay Ancestry’s silly membership fee to access. There is also a huge trove of audio recordings of rock concerts–loads of 90s indie rock, as well as better-known bands such as the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, etc. The archive also includes a repository for software, but I have yet to explore that corner of the virtual warehouse, so I don’t know what treasures it might be hiding.
The part I’m currently spending my spare time exploring is the set of scans of documents relating to the American Revolution provided by the Boston Public Library. This includes papers relating to well-known events such as the Boston Massacre and formal letters between commanders and the like, but there are also muster rolls, receipts for deliveries of supplies, court-martial records, and personal letters that detail what life was like for non-combatants at the time–the people who weren’t famous, whose letters have never been collected into convenient volumes for easy reference. I get that the technological revolution of the last two decades has brought its share of attendant evils and I am a strong believer in continuing to buy paper books and supporting independent bookstores (and your local library!), but this kind of access to our past is only possible thanks to the recent advances in communication technology. Collections from numerous libraries in the U.S.–and even a few international ones–have been digitized and uploaded or linked to the site. For history buffs, film fanatics, anyone with a consuming love for rock music–this site is a gold mine. Check it out sometime, when you have an afternoon to spare.
The Archive relies on donations to survive. If you are so inclined, you can support them here.