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Jeff Ubois and Personal Digital Archiving

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Jeff Ubois has devoted his career researching, writing about and promoting the preservation of culture. He has been involved with the Bassetti Foundation (whose mission is “…to promote responsibility in innovation”), New York’s PBS affiliate Thirteen/WNET, the Internet Archive, the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, various museums, video archives and more. Currently he is a program officer in the MacArthur Foundation’s Media, Culture, and Special Initiatives program, which Ubois said “is working to support creation of media and culture that is worth preserving.”

Jeff Ubois

Five years ago Ubois started thinking about what people are doing with their personal digital possessions. For example, given the proliferation of cell-phone cameras and other consumer-level digital capture devices, the size of personal digital collections had to be growing at a ferocious rate. Where were people keeping it all? At the same time these collections were probably spread across different media. How were people keeping track of it all? And what other personal digital stuff was at risk?

In 2010, Ubois took action and organized the first Personal Digital Archiving conference (the third one is being held later this month) to explore the issues. “I was a fanatic and I called different people from different institutions,” Ubois said. The first conference brought together a diverse group of people who were all working in parallel but didn’t necessarily know it, representing fields such as home movies, digital estates, health, finance, genealogy and more. The conference was a success and led to an annual event. Ubois helped give birth to a new community of practice and turn the attention of digital preservationists from institutional archiving to individual archiving.

One of the challenges now for digital preservationists is to make the general public aware of the risks and threats to their digital possessions, and to get out the message that the days of benign neglect — of “photos in a shoebox” — are over. Archiving personal digital stuff requires a new level of responsibility.

The digital age also provides the average person with new possibilities for sharing and preserving that stuff. Ubois said, “What strikes me about personal digital archiving is that it democratizes something that only very rich and powerful people had up until now, which is the ability to send a record of their lives into the future.” He pointed out that some personal archives could eventually be of great cultural value. “The Shakespeares of today are all producing digitally,” said Ubois. “So there are artists and scientists who are going to turn out, in the future, to have been really important and it would be priceless to have their early works. We could see the evolution of their ideas.”

Ubois emphasized that storage will continue to be a complex and economically difficult issue. There are many commercial storage solutions available but none have the long-term archival promise and reliability of cultural institutions. But if institutions help with personal archiving, how would financial support work?

Ubois suggests that maybe individuals could endow a terabyte of storage in a cultural institution. Or content donors could pay a one-time fee for storage. He said only it’s just now starting to happen in places like the University of Southern California, but it is slow because, Ubois said, “Institutions aren’t set up to think in that way. And commitments to preserve in perpetuity are risky for them.”

For the present, it’s important for the digital preservation community to convey to the general public that they need to deal with situation immediately and that personal digital archiving is not impossibly expensive or technically difficult.

Early in Ubois’s career he was a journalist and his interest in archives follows a natural progression. “Journalism is the first draft of history and I like to think of archives as the second draft,” Ubois said. “You can go back and examine what was in the media, what was broadcast, what was printed and what was distributed over the radio or through film.” Personal archives, he said, will contribute another layer of history.

“History” comes up frequently in a conversation with Ubois. He is interested in how history is preserved and made accessible, and who gets to write it down. Ubois said that the “who” is important because before the digital age, history was comprised of the words and opinions of a small group of people. Now, modern digital innovations have empowered individuals to the point where more people can contribute more content to the pool of historical information than ever. It brings to mind the phrase “History belongs to the victors” and suggests that maybe average people, preserving records of their lives, might be the victors in the long run.

Comments (4)

  1. The questions remain:
    What’s worth preserving?
    And who makes that decision?

    Future events and random disasters narrow the field.

  2. Paul, those are good questions, and what is cool about personal archiving, I think, is that it has the potential to change the answer to your second question to “anyone inclined to save something.”

  3. In taking a look at what has been preserved for us, we have a variety of materials from petroglyphs, cuneiform tablets, papyrus scrolls, to parchment books, and then paper books, digital disks. Some of the limitations have been the materials themselves but the other half has been the encoding of the language. We may have the cave paintings to look at but we don’t have the stories behind their creation. We have no idea what has been lost to us over the eons. Just ponder the losses at the great Alexandrian library. Simple deterioration over the centuries may have caused the greatest loss. And language never stays still, what we speak now may lose some of its connotation a few centuries from now.

  4. When it comes to personal history like this I love that for once the archival community can step back from the “what is worth saving” question. In the days of analog personal records we (as a professional community) didn’t try to tell private citizens what they could and could not (or should not) save.

    Private citizens can save whatever they deem worthy whether that is a saved PDF of a news story (the new newspaper clipping), that funny picture of their cat, or their personal blog. I will bet you that someone a few decades down the line will be happy he or she took steps to save it all. Just like today we marvel at the shoebox full of photos or letters our grandparents have kept for all these years.

    I’m so excited to see where this leads and hope the public embraces it.

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