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July 12, 2017

Internet Archive project preserves AOL free-trial CDs from the 1990s

by John_A

Why it matters to you

Every letterbox in the U.S. was a prime target for AOL’s promotional efforts in the 1990s and early 2000s, and this project is looking to document the disks that were distributed.

Back in the 1990s, America Online, Inc. (AOL) needed to spread the good word about the benefits of a home internet connection, and the company accomplished that task by distributing free trial CD-ROMs far and wide. Now, these relics of the early online age are being documented and preserved on the Internet Archive.

AOL trial CDs were something of an annoyance for recipients — and indeed, many households in the U.S. likely have one or two disks lying around in a home office or computer room. However, it was an undeniably successful endeavor for the company, helping to swell its user base from 200,000 accounts to over 22 million.

At the peak of production, it’s thought that 50 percent of all CDs being manufactured worldwide were free trials for AOL internet service. Countless different variations were created to keep the marketing effort up to date, and the preservation project aims to archive as many unique examples as possible.

The collection is being spearheaded by Jason Scott, but as with many Internet Archive projects, a communal effort will be required if the goal of documenting every AOL CD out there is to be completed. If you know that you have a couple of disks on hand, you might want to contribute to the project.

Each entry in the collection is comprised of a high quality scan of the CD itself and any accompanying artwork, as well as a disk image that allows anyone who downloads it to access its contents. Of course, the software will likely run into compatibility issues with modern systems, but the idea here is preservation, rather than practical use.

Just looking through the gallery of scans will be a blast from the past for anybody who was subjected to a barrage of AOL CDs in years gone by. Most of them simply offer a number of hours of internet access for free, but others have more unique sweeteners like content from MAD Magazine or an audiobook version of Prince Caspian.

It’s easy to feel a sense of nostalgia looking back at these internet artifacts — but don’t be fooled by rose-tinted glasses, we’ve come a long way since 56K, and going back to AOL dial-up isn’t much fun.




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