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.”
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.