The Internet Archive and Identity Formation

By kiemma

In 1996, in an attic in San Francisco, Brewster Kahle started the Internet Archive, an organization whose mission is, quite literally, to archive the Internet. Kahle often likens the goal of IA to that of the Library of Alexandria, to provide “universal access to all knowledge” (Internet Archive, 2015). The traditional role of the archive in preserving cultural heritage and aiding in (or dictating) the construction of identity and social memory is well documented. However, I believe that twenty-first century technologies have not only changed conceptions of archives and access, but will also completely transform the process of meaning-making as it relates to understandings of the self. I believe systems like the Internet Archive will play a significant role in this change, allowing users to challenge historical understandings of power dynamics, hegemonic narratives, and accessibility through unrestricted access to enormous quantities of archived information.


“Archives — as records— wield power over the shape and direction of historical scholarship, collective memory, and national identity, over how we know ourselves as individuals, groups, and societies”, state Joan Schwartz and Terry Cook, from their 2002 article Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory. As Schwartz and Cook argue, the powerful typically control the hegemonic historical narrative that is constructed through archives by dictating what is preserved and what is sacrificed. The histories of select socioeconomically and culturally favored groups are retained, while the stories of marginalized groups are dismissed. It is important to note, I think, that “marginalized” does not necessarily mean statistically insignificant, merely socially and economically disadvantaged due to complex socio-historical factors. The ways in which these marginalized groups are able to engage with archives, as well as the ways that a lack of representation effects identity construction for these underrepresented groups, are extremely complicated. Questions of selection, retention, organization, and access quickly come to the forefront when considering archives. As Schwartz and Cook assert, “Records are also about power. They are about imposing control and order on transactions, events, people, and societies through the legal, symbolic, structural, and operational power of recorded communication” (Schwartz & Cook, 2002). I believe that digital technology has played a large role in alleviating issues of access, though I argue that issues of power dynamics, hegemonic representation, and material organization are still as prevalent as they were in the pre-digital era. This is especially true when considering monolithic cultural and educational institutions that have merely digitized their existing collections, effectively providing wider access to the same socio-historically problematic materials and presentation. I do, however, believe that the Internet Archive represents an exciting new realm of archiving, one that aspires to adhere to tenets of egalitarianism, non-discrimination, and universal access.

One of the most powerful aspects of digital archives is the ability of users to engage with material on a much deeper level than traditional archives allowed, often providing space for expansive reinterpretations of community and of self. In Marija Dalbello’s paper on digital cultural heritage, she includes a quote from Springer et al., who raise an important point when they ask “Does releasing public content with no known restrictions create a sense of democratic access or increase the sense of public ownership and shared stewardship for public cultural heritage resources” (Springer et al., 2008, 15). I argue that this is in fact the case. A sense of ownership in relation to cultural heritage enables users to see themselves and their communities as being present in the complex historical narratives that are told by archives. I believe that the Internet Archive provides space for people to participate in these kinds of reinterpretations of culture (and, by extension, identity construction) through open access to an exhaustive, and largely uncensored, quantity of material.

I think the potential for underrepresented (or entirely disregarded) groups, as well as individuals, to radically transform their processes of identity formation is present with an “unregulated “ (or at the very least lightly curated) archival system like the Internet Archive. Whether or not this will prove true remains to be seen. Identity formation and understandings of the self are complicated and greatly nuanced, and, since the advent of recorded history, have been deeply impacted by the hegemonic narratives of official archives. I believe the Internet Archive will serve as a sort of case study for the future of information retention, presentation, and access and the way that marginalized groups engage with these materials. I personally am incredibly excited at the prospect of a future of archival systems that seek to represent all, rather than the narrative of the privileged few.


Dalbello, Marija. “Digital Cultural Heritage: Concepts, Projects, and Emerging Constructions of Heritage.” Proceedings of the Libraries in the Digital Age (LIDA) conference, 25-30 May, 2009.

Internet Archive. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.

Lepore, Jill. “The Cobweb: Can the Internet be Archived?” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 26 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Oct. 2015.

Schwartz, Joan, and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2.1-19 (2002): 2-13. Print.


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