The WWW Virtual Library:

History of the Virtual Library


See also: About the Virtual Library,
Alumni of the Virtual Library.

If you are looking for virtual libraries containing
resources on history in general. Please visit the
History page of the central catalogue.
This page, here, only deals with the history of The
World Wide Web Virtual Library itself.


The WWW Virtual Library (VL) is the oldest catalogue of the Web.

It was started by Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of HTML and of the Web itself, in 1991 at CERN in Geneva.

“… there would be the occasional ‘Hey, Ive just set up a server, and it's dead cool. Here's he address.’
With each new message I would enter in info.cern.ch a hypertext link to the new web site …”
“In July and August 1991 there were from ten to one hundred `hits' (pages viewed) a day.”
Tim Berners-Lee Weaving the Web (Harper Business ISBN 0-06-251587-X), pp. 47 & 49.

Unlike commercial catalogues, it is run by a loose confederation of volunteers, who compile pages of key links for particular areas in which they are expert; even though it isn't the biggest index of the Web, the VL pages are widely recognised as being amongst the highest-quality guides to particular sections of the Web.

Individual indexes live on hundreds of different servers around the world. A set of catalogue pages linking these pages is maintained at http://vlib.org/. A mirror of the Catalog is kept at East Anglia (UK).

The catalogue pages which started life as a single page on the World's first web server at CERN, have been hosted at various locations around the World since then. They moved to a new server in Geneva in 2004, not many kilometres from their first location. The same location also houses the server for the Virtual Library's search engine VLsearch

The beginning: 1991-92

Though the first webpage is generally said to have been written on November 13th 1990, the Web became publicly available on August 6th 1991. No copies of the original pages are known to survive.

The WWW Virtual Library is the direct descendant of the original Overview.html page on TBL's server in Geneva. This itself was linked to from the Web's main-page http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html (that location no longer exists and the link is to an archive copy at W3C).

The archived copies at W3C, linked to above, date from November 3rd 1992. The last link on the Overview page is "Social Sciences Coombs papers archive ." The link is to http://www.w3.org/ History/ 19921103-hypertext/ hypertext/ DataSources /Archives/ CoombsPapers.html, which in turn states:

Thus whilst that page may have been archived that November, it was obviously authored on May 20th 1992

The link to ANU ("Australian Nat'l. University, Canberra") is to file://coombs.anu.edu.au/coombspapers. The Coombs server was to become 'Coombsweb' and that site (http://coombs.anu.edu.au/ now states: "At the time of its launch (25 Jan 1994) Coombsweb was the 2nd WWW site at the ANU, the 5th site in Australia and the 850th site in the world. Currently the Internet comprises over 70 million Web servers." (The apparent discrepancy in dates is because coombs.anu.edu.au was a server, long before it was a webserver(!).)

The Asian Studies sites managed or supervised by Matthew Ciolek remain an important part of the VL, as well as being now the oldest.

August 1992: “There are about 20 Web servers in existence.”
Ciolek: Global Networking: a Timeline.

During 1992 various individuals were contacted about participating in the VL project. Amongst these were colleagues at Indiana University (for Law, see About VL Law). Thus began the move to a distributed VL.


October 1993: “There are 200+ Web servers in existence.”
Ciolek: Global Networking: a Timeline.

The above screenshot is believed to be from1993 and is from TBL's computer. The window with the Virtual Library (and an early version of its logo) is clearly visible. Asian Studies it will be seen has already been joined by Anthropology, Archaeology,Astronomy and …, Bio Sciences, and those that are cut off from the partial view that has been preserved …

“… a list of servers, which to a degree coould coordinate people who were putting information on the Web. When the list became larger, it needed to be organized, so I arranged it in two lists, by geography and by subject matter. … Arthur Secret … set up the lists into what we called the Virtual Library, with a tree structure that allowed people to find things.”
Tim Berners-Lee Weaving the Web (see above), pp. 55.

From 1993 Arthur Secret continued work on the WWWVL, initially at CERN (until August 1995) and from January 1996 at the W3 Consortium. The 'distributed' nature of the Virtual Library (many individual VLs forming the whole) really dates from the first year of Arthur's involvement (1993) and owes much to a suggestion from Lou Montulli.

Colleagues at Kansas were approached in 1993 (for History, see alumni page), and HNSource (a Lynx based server that had begun operation that March) became the VL's History Index on September 21st 1993.

On Yahoo's tenth anniversary (March 2005), they republished their first page as promo.yahoo.com_birthday10_incorporation_.html. This page has a link to the Virtual Library (actually to http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/DataSources/bySubject/Overview.html) at its foot:

Most of the other links on that early Yahoo page will no longer be familiar, nor the concept of only "31897 entries in the Yahoo database"!

January 1996: “There are 100,000 Web servers in existence.”
Ciolek: Global Networking: a Timeline.


January 1997: “There are 650,000 Web servers in existence.”
Ciolek: Global Networking: a Timeline.

In late 1997 maintenance of the catalogue passed to Gerard Manning.

The maintainers of the individual virtual libraries elected a Council in 1999. This Council took office in January 2000. It oversaw the creation of a Constitution and Bylaws for the association. The Constitution was accepted by a ballot of the members on August 7th, 2000. Thus an association sans but lucratif (a not for profit association) was created under the Swiss Civil Code.

March 1999: “There are 4.3 mln Web servers in existence.”
Ciolek: Global Networking: a Timeline.

Past and present officers of the WWWVL:

Details of former members of the association can be found on the Alumni page.

The current officers of the Virtual Library, following February 2006's General Meeting of the Association.
from left to right: Raoul Sanchez, Arthur Secret, Lisa Micah, Michael Chapman.

Search Engines

The original search engine for the VL was set up by Gabriel Fenteany whilst he was at Harvard (and hosted there). After his moving to a new post the search engine moved, after a short gap, to a new server in the 'States. That machine was regrettably hacked and the VL was without a search engine until the early months of 2005, when the service was relaunched with new software.

Mirror sites

Mirrors have been run at various locations over the years. One of the longest running of these was maintained in Argentina by Sergio Paoli.

Another long-standing mirror is currently maintained by Dave Stevens in the United Kingdom.


The Virtual Library is pleased to be associated with the Fondation pour l'expression associative (FEA), which has been the venue for various of its meetings.

Further details

Members (and others) are encouraged to suggest new material for this page along with any corrections or amendments they think appropriate.
It should be noted that this page is -in principle- confined to the history of the central VL structure. Many individual members libraries have their own rich histories, frequently documented on their own sites.

The WWW Virtual Library

WWW-VL: The VL a short history.

Copyright © 1991-2008 The WWW Virtual Library. Last update: February 13th 2008.
No claim made to non-VL material illustrated in screenshots.

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