Jeff Ubois and Wishful Thinking: Thoughts on Cultural Institutions and Archival

by Catalina Iorga

Jeff Ubois

Jeff Ubois

Jeff Ubois, of, gave the last talk of the Economies of Commons 2 conference at De Balie, Amsterdam and presented his thoughts on the imbalance of public/private institutions, and how libraries, museums and archives can meet the new challenges of preservation.

Ubois is currently exploring new approaches to personal archiving for Fujitsu Labs of America in Sunnyvale, California, and to video archiving for Intelligent Television and Thirteen/WNET in New York. He has also worked as a consultant to – among many more – the Internet Archive and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

His talk focused on public finding for libraries, museums and archives (LMAs). These institutions are often assigned an intrinsic value and thus deemed worthy of educational funding, but also talked about with view to being at risk (fire in the library, anyone?). Lately LMAs are being mentioned in connection to the free use economy; fair use industries, according to the Computer and Computing Industry Association, have produced $4.7 trillion in 2007, a 36 percent increase over the 2002 revenue of $3.4 trillion.

Most importantly, there’s a great deal of wishful thinking when it comes to LMAs, market alternatives and public/private partnerships, with most assuming that there’s no reason why they shouldn’t work. However, these partnerships aren’t free. Economic uncertainties are always looming on the horizon as businesses that invest in LMAs expect to get something in return. In addition to this, there’s a fundamental asymmetry in public/private negotiations. LMAs start from a position of disadvantage, a situation that Ubois exemplified with the O. Orkin Insect Zoo. The zoo is ironically supported by Orkin Pest Control.

Google Books, labeled by Ubois as ‘the mother of all public/private partnerships’, closed a deal with the Austrian Library to scan 400 000 library books, according to AFP. However, the Library signed an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) with Google, meaning that the details of this massive digitization process cannot be made freely available. ‘Knowledge for the sake of knowledge’ thus becomes ‘knowledge for the sake of money’. The latter are not Ubois’ words. What he strongly advises against, though, is the privatization of public cultural goods and warns against entrusting a private Californian organization with social heritage. Even if it promises to do no evil.

To conclude, Ubois examined the real opportunities LAMs have for direct public engagement. As new patterns of production, in which information creation surpasses storage capabilities of the average citizen, LAMs have a real chance to make a difference by supporting personal archiving. How? By collecting small endowments for preservation in a crowdsource funding model and reaching new constituencies.