Inside an old SF church, a battle for the future of knowledge

Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle outside the Internet Archive offices in a former Christian Science church building in the Richmond district of San Francisco. Photo: Constanza Hevia H. / Special for The Chronicle

You may have passed the white, neoclassical-style building at 300 Funston St. with its massive columns, maybe even wondered what’s going on inside.

Built in 1923 as a Christian Science Church, it was purchased in 2009 by the Internet Archive. AI’s mission seems both magnificent and impossible: “To provide universal access to all knowledge,” according to founder Brewster Kahle. This results in the creation of a digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts, including books, music and television shows in digital form. The archives provide free access to researchers, historians, scholars, print disabled people and the general public.

The old church of San FranciscoThe Richmond district was chosen largely because the facade of the church resembles the logo of the Internet Archive, which features the Greek columns of the Library of Alexandria.

On a recent weekday, Kahle (pronounced “kale”) was thrilled to show me around. It seemed to miss the good old pre-COVID days and normal building hubbub: dozens of staff and volunteers digitizing everything from home movies to old vinyl records to 8-bit video games.

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, talks about servers at the Internet Archive building in a former Christian Science church in San Francisco’s Richmond district. Photo: Constanza Hevia H. / Special for The Chronicle

With his unruly eyebrows and wildly enthusiastic attitude, Kahle is clearly the Willy Wonka of the place. Barefoot, he leaps almost everywhere as he shows me the microfiche files (remember that?) and scanners, actually dancing when he comes to the antique hand-cranked Victrola, which reads 78 rpm records. Charlie Ventura’s “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” blares from its great horn, filling the cavernous room with its irresistible melody. I can’t help but dance around the room with him.

But Kahle is in trouble. If a lawsuit by publishers Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins and Wiley is successful, he will not only have to shut down the archives, but also pay around $60 million.

The lawsuit seeks to end the longstanding and widespread practice of libraries of Controlled Digital Loanwhich would prevent the hundreds of libraries using this system, including the Internet Archive, from providing digital books to their customers.

With controlled digital lending, libraries lend a digitized version of the physical books they have acquired, as long as the physical copy is not circulating and the digital files are protected from redistribution. Only one digital copy is loaned at a time. The publishers claim that copyright law does not allow this practice.

The trial was a blow to Kahle. “We’ve worked cooperatively with them for years,” Kahle said, adding that the archives remove the books when asked to do so. “We love books,” he said more than once when we met.

I, too, have worked with publishers for years, as a producer of television and public events, for bookstores, and as a book reviewer and columnist. The people I’ve met in publishing are true book lovers and care passionately about their work. I am grateful to them for bringing books into the world and supporting authors.

But is the digital lending process really hurting authors? An e-book, even Kahle acknowledges, is actually a bit sad, a poor substitute for a real book, even several notches below a Kindle version. I’ve used the service in the past, as Kahle says, it’s common, to check a quote or proofread part of something I need for research. Is an author, especially a bestseller, à la John Grisham or Malcolm Gladwell, really hurt by this?

Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle sits among statues of Internet Archive building staff in a former Christian Science church in San Francisco’s Richmond district. Photo: Constanza Hevia H. / Special for The Chronicle

In the old church chapel, which remains intact with its wooden pews and beautiful stained glass windows, are lifelike clay statues of all the people who worked at AI for over three years, made by sculptor Petaluma Nuala Creed. They were inspired by the terracotta warriors of Xi’an, China, representing the armies of the first emperor of china.

The Internet Archive is definitely engaged in a battle. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Donald E. Patel