Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Information Age nonprofits

We may soon need to add a new entry to the standard categories of not-for-profit organization (arts, social service, education, environment, religious, museums, etc.), one which this era's defining technology is enabling: non-profits devoted to exhaustively and permanently recording information and making available universal searching of it by anyone. Or as one group's mission statement puts it, "Universal access to human knowledge."

The key impulses distinguishing these efforts from libraries and history museums would be the "exhaustive" part and the "practicable searching" part -- maybe the category name would be something like "macro archive"? (Yecch, maybe not.) History museums do not attempt to house every single iota of information from an era no matter how trivial; and even in the greatest most comprehensive library in the world you can't easily search within all the texts it holds.

One obvious example is Wikipedia. Another is the Internet Archive, which recently got some press (2,300 storage servers and growing!). Project Gutenberg was an early significant step in this direction and remains a growing and vital resource. A targeted non-profit application of the impulse is the Mormons' vast and growing archive of family-tree information (which I can attest from personal experience is truly offered free to one and all without any questions about religious affiliation or intention).

Google's controversial archiving project represents the same impulse but in a for-profit form, as does Bill Gates' photos company called Corbis. Actually Google has for several years been making freely available a narrow but deep slice of the Internet Archive's turf, a complete searchable archive of "newsgroups", which were the dominant online forums for years before the World Wide Web became the Internet's front end (use their "advanced groups search" link.)

There may be more such efforts underway or in the works, these are just the ones I've noticed.

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