Curating Digital Joel

On Monday evening, some of Joel Jonientz’s University of North Dakota colleagues and I began the gut-wrenching process of preparing his digital archive. (For more on Joel, check out his blog here and my little post on him here.)

While Joel was trained as a painter, in the last decade he had moved heavily to digital media for his work. His animation, design, video, and audio content was scattered over three computers and a bunch of hard drives. After a quick look, we determined that almost everything on these machines was work related, but his organization was a bit complex, so instead of just grabbing content files, we imaged the drives on the computer (more or less) to make sure that we got everything we might need.

As we did this, we looked over the terabyte or more of data and realized that the process of curating this content would be more than just a long evening or weekend. Joel has three kids and a fabulous wife and they wanted copies of his digital legacy. Moreover, we wanted to make some of Joel’s legacy available to the university archives as part of its mission to archive the work of faculty. They are just now coming to terms with the complexities of archiving digital work, so my colleagues and I are looking to help them as much as possible.

So far, we’ve encountered three issues as we began to think through the process of curating his digital collection:

1. Formats. Joel worked pretty easily across multiple proprietary software platforms for image, video, and audio editing as well as layout and design. As  result, his hard drives are a bewildering array of file types that will have to be converted to archival formats. In some cases, that will be easy. Audio files can be converted to .wav files and Photoshop files convert easily to uncompressed .tiff formats. Video files present a different challenge, of course, as they have – from what I can tell – garnered the same kind of wide agreement for an archival format. 

More than that, the formats of files do preserve traces of Joel’s artistic process. Animation for example might easily involve both proprietary still image formats, design, and video. While we plan to have several copies of the imaged drives preserved, we began to think about how the relationship between proprietary file types and process should be represented in the more carefully and selective curated archive. Converting all the propriety file types to archival formats runs the risk of overwriting part of his creative process by obscuring the tools he used to make his works. 

2. Structure. The issue of curating process extends to file structure as well. When we produce a curated copy of his files saved to archival formats, we will have to make some difficult decisions on how to reconcile the formats present on multiple hard drives with multiple file structures that often preserved parts of the same project or projects. Some of this will involve working closely with people familiar with various projects. Joel was an intensely collaborative dude who worked with multiple people on multiple projects so it will be a challenge to figure out who can help understand the key components and organization of his work. 

3. Stability. This is the biggest challenge and one that we don’t have to face alone. We need to move a significant amount of data to a stable medium that will be there for his kids when they start to get interested in their father’s work. Right now hard drives are not particularly stable when we’re looking at a decade or more of storage. In fact, hardware in general is not stable over such long periods of time. So we’ll have to make a plan to keep migrating the data to new hardware and to make sure that it will be available for the future.

For now, we have a solid start on organizing and curating Joel’s digital legacy. Once I get back from summer fieldwork, we are going to start to digital curation process in earnest. As we do that, and make progress, I’ll keep the world in the loop.

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