10 book websites in the early days of the internet

A home page of The New York Public Library 1998

A home page of The New York Public Library from October 5, 1998. Click to open this archived page

Thanks to The Internet Archive you can see popular book websites as they were in the beginnings of the web.

Internet is not only about here and now. It’s also the history and a part of our heritage, just like printed books.

Everywhere in the world digital archives of the printed word are being created. The Internet Archive, using Wayback Machine, is creating the digital library of the world wide web.

10 or 15 years seems to be a moment, but the digital world is changing hundreds of times faster than anything that preceded it.

The web pages captured by Wayback Machine in 1997 or 2001, let us realize how much have been improved – and actually how much have been saved for the future.

A famous quote by Saint Augustine goes: “The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” Thanks to The Internet Archive you can travel in time, and see pages that still exist.

A single emotion evoked by visiting these archived book websites? Nostalgia.

10 book websites in the early days of the internet

1. The New York Public Library

Book sites in the old days - The New York Public Library

Having in mind all the limitations of web design in 1998, The New York Public Library website was very inviting, stylish, and functional. It even had animated gifs, and they are preserved by Wayback Machine.

A text-only version was available, just in case the modem would get clogged while processing the 20k image.

Besides the list of branch libraries, or explanation of library catalogs, the site offered access to digital collections, with The Manuscripts and Archives Division, and online exhibitions, among others. An option to search the web from within the site was also available.

⇢ The New York Public Library in 1998 and 2014

2. Project Gutenberg

Book sites in the old days - Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg was founded by Michael Hart in 1971. Its mission is to make public domain books available in the simplest, easiest to use forms.

Nowadays, any ebook file can be sent from Project Gutenberg to Google Drive or Dropbox in just one click. Go and test download of the first ebook in the world.

Back in 1998, it was not possible to download files via the web browser. The easiest possible form was to use one of ftp sites that carried Project Gutenberg e-texts. File formats to choose from were txt and zip.

The file size was the biggest limitation: In the What is PG? page we read:

By the time Project Gutenberg got famous, the standard was 360K disks, so we did books such as Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan because they could fit on one disk. Now 1.44 is the standard disk and ZIP is the standard compression; the practical file size is about three million characters, more than long enough for the average book.

⇢ Project Gutenberg in 1998 and 2014

3. Random House

Book sites in the old days - Random House

Back in 1997 the site had a creative name, Books@Random, and it was designed like an online magazine of that time (compare it to The New York Times, listed below).

On the website, you can find in 1997 what you can find in 2014: new releases, featured titles, online contests, author info, or newsletter sign-up.

What about free book excerpts and sample chapters? Had Publishers like Random House offered them online 17 years ago? Sure! Science-fiction, mystery, non-fiction, and YA – a category at that time called “young readers”.

⇢ Random House in 1997 and 2014

4. HarperCollins

Book sites in the old days - Harper Collins

Minimalist layout, advanced typography. You wouldn’t believe this was a website in 1997.

Out of the four main sections, the area devoted to readers is especially interesting to explore. It contains, for instance, resources on how to start a reading group: an excerpt from What to Read by Mickey Pearlman, and a set of guide booklets.

⇢ HarperCollins in 1997 and 2014

5. Baen Free Library

Book sites in the old days - Baen Free Library

The Baen Free Library was launched in 2001 by a science-fiction publishing house Baen Books. It was a catalog of about 20 books anyone would read online for free.

Since the beginning of the internet era, Baen Books promoted electronic publishing, all the time experimenting in the field of intellectual property and copyright. From Wikipedia:

It appears that sales of both the books made available free and other books by the same author, even from a different publisher, increase when the electronic version is made available free of charge.

⇢ Baen Free Library in 2001 and 2014

6. The Bookseller

Book sites in the old days - The Bookseller

“This site is designed to be viewed with Netscape v3 or above, or Internet Explorer v3 or above.” This message very well describes the web of the 90s.

The British publishing industry magazine offered news, previews, links and events, as well as BookTrack bestseller lists.

Most importantly, the website offered access to the archive of the printed edition:

New material is coming on-line all the time as theBookseller.com team add material from the 140 years that The Bookseller has being covering the industry.

⇢ The Bookseller in 1998 and 2014

7. Teleread

Book sites in the old days - Teleread

Teleread is the world’s longest existing site devoted to ebooks and digital publishing. For anyone interested in ebook news, this site is one of must-reads.

It was founded by David H. Rothman in 1992, when he made a proposition in a Computerworld article for a national digital library (here is an archived article).

Teleread was speeding our adoption of ebooks, that’s for sure. Sixteen years ago, in an article for the U.S. News & World Report, David Rothman imagined ebooks as they are now:

Computers just don’t cut it for beach or bathroom reading. But imagine a computer shaped like a real book, complete with pages one can flip, each embedded with programmable “type” that could reproduce anything from a trigonometry text to The Great Gatsby.

⇢ Teleread in 2002 and 2014

8. Borders

Book sites in the old days - Borders

Borders is the example of how extremely helpful Wayback Machine can be. The site started in 1995, but was closed in 2011, as Borders Group went bankrupt.

Barnes & Noble acquired Borders’ trademarks and customer list. Now, when you enter borders.com domain, you get redirected to Barnes & Noble website.

Thanks to Wayback Machine it’s possible to search the content of the site that doesn’t exist any longer.

We are all focused on preserving printed word, turning old manuscripts into a digital form. But we should also follow the path The Internet Archive had paved: to preserve the world wide web at its every stage.

⇢ Borders in 1997

9. The New York Times: Books

Book sites in the old days - The New York Times Books

The part of The New York Times devoted to books, especially the reviews, is one of the most recognizable and influential newspaper sections in the world.

The New York Times on the Web had started in 1996, quickly becoming one of the most popular websites. Obviously, Book Review went online, too.

Since the beginning, the newspaper was leading the way in expanding into the digital world. For instance, some of the content, naming only Expanded Bestseller Lists, was available only via the online edition.

At that time, the exclusive bookseller of The New York Times was Barnes and Noble.

The New York Times: Books in 1999 and 2014

10. The Internet Archive

Book sites in the old days - The Internet Archive

Such a list wouldn’t be complete without the site that actually made this list possible.

First impression you’ll have when you enter The Internet Archive in 2014 is: “wow, they’ve got a lot of stuff”. It’s a fact. The site offers free access to over 6 million digital files, including ebooks, audio, and video.

The first time the home page of The Internet Archive was captured and preserved for the future is October 11, 1997. It was clearly the beginning – a decent page with the couple of links, acknowledgments, and, most importantly, the mission statement:

The Archive will provide historians, researchers, scholars, and others access to this vast collection of data (reaching ten terabytes), and ensure the longevity of this information.

Since that time the Wayback Machine indexed over 400,000,000,000 web pages! (and your blog is probably included, too).

⇢ The Internet Archive in 1997 and 2014

• • •

The modern-day technology can be surprisingly helpful for book lovers. Wayback Machine lets us travel in time. Google Maps lets us visit libraries and bookstores on the other side of the planet – without leaving home.

Some day, even tomorrow, the “now” will become “then”. Enjoy the bookish life on the internet, while it’s not gone. And it’s not gone completely, because there is The Internet Archive.

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