Aruba has long been a special place for Stacy Argondizzo. For years, her family has vacationed on the tiny Caribbean Island every July. More recently it’s been more than just a place to take a break from her work as a digital archivist—becoming wholly a part of that work.

A project Argondizzo galvanized comes to full fruition this week. The Internet Archive is now home to the Aruba Collection, which hosts digitized versions of Aruba’s National Library, National Archives, and other institutions including an archaeology museum and the University of Aruba. The collection comprises 101,376 items so far—roughly one for each person who lives on the Island—including 40,000 documents, 60,000 images, and seven 3D objects.

The Internet Archive is mostly known for trying to back up online resources like websites that don’t have a government body advocating for their posterity. Being tapped to back up an entire nation’s history takes the nonprofit into new territory, and it is a striking endorsement of its mission to bring as much information online as possible. “What makes Aruba unique is they have cooperation from all the leading cultural heritage players in the country,” says Chris Freeland, the Internet Archive’s director of library services. “It’s just an awesome statement.” The project is funded wholly by the Internet Archive, in line with its policy of generally letting anyone upload content.

The Aruba project was set in motion in 2018, after Argondizzo, then working at the Internet Archive, began to wonder if she could help preserve Aruba’s history. The island has a turbulent past—its indigenous population was colonized by the Spanish and then the Dutch—and its archives contain artefacts ranging from sunny vintage postcards to books about the nation’s role in the slave trade and Venuzuela’s oil boom. Although Aruba is relatively safe from hurricanes, the threat of what a severe storm or other extreme weather could do to its physical archives made Argondizzo nervous. “They were one disaster away, basically, from losing everything,” she says.

Argondizzo reached out to Peter Scholing, an information specialist at Aruba’s national library. When they met the next time she was in town at the library’s colorful headquarters in the capital city Oranjestad, what started as a brief tour of the library turned into a marathon conversation. “We just hit it off,” says Argondizzo.

Scholing was equally delighted to connect. “We ran into a lot of roadblocks before we stumbled upon the Internet Archive,” he says. Archival work can be labor- and resource-intensive—it’s not easy to turn stacks of dusty tomes and fragile decades-old newspapers into easily searchable files. The budget for digitization, he says, is “shoestring,” making the scope of the project daunting, especially for a country of around 110,000 people.

Despite its limited funds, Aruba had its own scanning equipment it could use for the project. But the Internet Archive provided the software to organize the sprawling collection, including algorithms to decipher handwriting to turn centuries-old penmanship into digital text ready for modern readers.

Aruba’s colonial history also meant documents were spread all over the place. “Our collection was scattered,” says Edric Croes, the head of archival conservation and management at the National Archives of Aruba. There were works to be scanned across the world, including in the Netherlands, Spain, the United States, and other islands like Curaçao. Establishing a hub to find the documents online has been especially helpful, Scholing notes, for researchers located abroad, who no longer have to travel to Aruba to physically dig through archives.

It’s unusual for a country to outsource this sort of project to a foreign nonprofit. “In a dream world, every national library would have enough funds to bring on an amazing team of people,” says University of Waterloo history professor Ian Milligan, who is writing a book on the Internet Archive’s origins, and was not involved in the Aruba project. “Governments often don’t have that.”

The Internet Archive has not previously acted as custodian of a country’s whole collection, although it has worked with a number of national and regional libraries around the world. Back in 2011, it partnered with the Culture Office of Bali, an island province of Indonesia, to preserve what the office described at the time as “90 percent of Bali’s literature.” (This now makes up the Internet Archive’s Balinese Digital Library collection.)

Aruba’s archivists hope other nations will follow in its digital footsteps. “It’s a really feasible model that could be applied to a lot of small islands, developing states, even bigger countries with limited means,” Scholing says.

Partnering with the Internet Archive looks like an obvious solution for cash-strapped archivists. Potential partners do need to think, though, about what it means to rely on another country’s private organization, one with its own challenges.

“When we think about digital preservation, we often think of the technical challenges,” says Milligan of Waterloo. “But I think the biggest challenges are the social challenges, the human challenges. How can you set up an organization that will be here in 50 years?”

He credits the Internet Archive with a very “sustainable structure,” in terms of future-proofing. But that doesn’t make it wholly invulnerable. The Archive is currently facing a number of serious legal challenges, including a lawsuit from major record labels, including Universal Music Group, Capitol, and Sony, that poses an existential threat—the labels are asking for damages that could amount to over $400 million.

That’s on top of an ongoing dispute with publishing companies over a digital lending library it established during the pandemic. While its digitization capabilities are far more robust than many nation-states, the Internet Archive’s position in an increasingly vituperative battleground between copyright holders and tech companies means that its future is precarious, too.

The Internet Archive sees Aruba’s endorsement as especially timely. “It’s been really empowering to see that the nation of Aruba is continuing to add materials and upload content at the same time that we’re facing this,” Freeland says. “We’re in this for the long haul.”