Curating and Preserving Personal Digital Archives With the Permanent Legacy Foundation
FamilySearch recently announced a new partnership with The Permanent Legacy Foundation. The announcement described the foundation as providing “a service that allows people to upload document, photo, audio, and video files in a secure, permanent place for current and future generations to enjoy and cherish.” My initial question on reading about this partnership was “Why would I choose to upload and store materials in a Permanent Archive at Permanent.org when I am already uploading memories to FamilySearch?” Immediately on the heels of that question came the question, “Why store my digital items at Permanent.org as opposed to other cloud-based storage providers like Dropbox or Google Drive?” I reached out to the company with my questions and Robert Friedman, Executive Director of The Permanent Legacy Foundation, was gracious enough to sit down with me for an interview.
The Mission and Vision of The Permanent Legacy Foundation
Friedman began our interview by explaining that The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a non-profit organization whose mission is preservation. When you upload materials to a Permanent Archive at Permanent.org, you’re doing more than just participating in cloud storage, you’re creating a digital archive. “We think of the word archive the way an archivist or a librarian might. We think of it as a place where you are curating materials intentionally,” says Friedman. “Part of that is knowing what to throw away, not just what to keep.” Friedman speaks of a more intentional, thoughtful approach to what you are including in your personal archives.
A Non-Profit Endowment Model
The Permanent Legacy Foundation has established a Non-Profit Endowment model. This is what makes Permanent different from other cloud-based storage companies. The way it operates is similar to the way the Smithsonian, Harvard, and other universities operate. When you pay a storage fee, the money is put into an investment account whose purpose is sustainability. The goal is for the endowment to provide, at the very minimum, permanent storage of your materials and the capability to download these materials at any time.
So how much does it cost to store items in a Permanent Archive at Permanent.org? Users can store up to 1 GB of materials for free. After that, users can purchase additional storage as needed for $10 per GB. Friedman points out that it’s important to remember that the fees aren’t actually fees. They are donations to The Permanent Legacy Foundation that will be used to sustain an endowment that has been put in place with long-term preservation of your archives in mind.
The initial goal of the company is similar to what you might see with a Kickstarter campaign. They can’t guarantee permanence until they have the endowment. With that in mind, the company is working first on attaining a goal of $100,000 in donations. For now, users are pledging money for additional storage. Once the goal is attained, users will be charged. Then, the company will work on a larger goal, allowing for even more storage and greater capacity for preservation.
Friedman says of this process, “Storage is free until we hit our pledge goal. This gives people a chance to lean into this, experiment, spread the word, and help us build a user base so we can all get there together.”
Data uploaded over the internet to Permanent is end-to-end TLS encrypted “in-flight” during transmission to/from their web servers. Data is unencrypted to allow for services that users love like format conversion and file replication. User information is always secured in an encrypted database, so hackers can never trace back individual files to their owners. Storage in the Permanent Archives at Permanent.org is safe behind industry standard security for consumer cloud storage options like Dropbox. While not quite there yet, HIPAA compliance is in the Permanent development roadmap in order to provide a higher level of security for medical documents.
The philosophy of The Permanent Legacy Foundation with regard to privacy is “private first, public second.” They believe that there is historical and educational value in capturing not just the “life events” or happy times a person experiences, but a broad spectrum of materials. Some people may not be comfortable making those materials public during their lifetime, but the foundation’s mission as a cultural heritage organization is to make those materials eventually available to the public. The idea is that you will spend your lifetime maintaining a private archive and after your passing, those materials will be made publicly available. However, users do have the option to publish their materials DURING their lifetime as desired, and features for private sharing and collaboration are already available.
Another feature that is available now is the option to immediately publish certain materials or collections to the Internet Archive, whose purpose is to preserve a public, permanent, online copy of whatever content they are provided to store. Features that are on the road map but not yet released include predetermined future ownership, sharing, and publication directives and automated methods for assigning ownership or releasing materials posthumously.
Sharing and Collaboration
Everything you upload to the Permanent Archives at Permanent.org is private by default. One of the exciting features of the platform is that you can choose to share individual files and folders in an archive or even collaborate with others on each archive in different ways, depending on the purpose of the archive. This makes it possible for people to view and collaborate on archives for living people. Collaborators can be added as members to each archive as follows:
Viewers: A member with permission to view records only
Contributors: Viewer plus permission to create file and folder records (e.g. upload only)
Editors: Contributor plus permission to edit record metadata and to change folder views
Curators: Editor plus permission to move, copy and delete records
While The Permanent Legacy Foundation doesn’t have plans to provide printing services for materials stored in the archives at Permanent.org, what they do have in their future plan is the ability for third-party printing services to plug in to Permanent and retrieve materials from your archive to print with their applications. Friedman stated, “Remember, we’re an archive not a business. We’re not trying to extract wealth from your materials. Our overall goal is to provide access to materials. We provide a platform. Third-party services have a mission to use the platform in creative ways.”
Are Permanent Archives Really Permanent?
One thing that makes the storage of materials in the Permanent Archives at Permanent.org “permanent” is that the company is not relying on one place for storage. While you upload directly to their site, back-end processes automatically store the material at multiple storage providers and in multiple regions. The foundation uses servers at Amazon and Backblaze, and intends to continue adding storage platforms. Friedman states that the beauty of storing materials in the Permanent Archives is that “We do all that migration for you. It’s almost like creating a diversified portfolio.”
Another thing that makes materials stored in the Permanent Archives more permanent is that they perform file format conversions. Any time content is uploaded, it is converted to a “permanent” format. For example, Word documents are converted to PDF/A and all images are converted to jpg. Again, the primary goal is preservation.
What happens to materials in the Permanent Archives if the endowment goals aren’t reached or Permanent.org goes away in the future? Friedman states that “The support of private donors and size of the endowment will determine the level of services we can offer, not the preservation mission of the organization. All of your materials have been preserved and will always be available for download.”
Permanent’s Integration With FamilySearch Memories
What of my initial question, “Why would I choose to upload and store materials in a Permanent Archive at Permanent.org when I am already uploading memories to FamilySearch?” Friedman explained that the FamilySearch application and terms of service put restrictions on what is possible to upload and store. There are restrictions regarding living persons as well as content restrictions. There are no such restrictions at Permanent. Users can build an archive for a living person or add photos of living people in a deceased person’s archive. Users get to determine what remains private, who can collaborate on their archives, what will be made public, and when.
The ability to determine who can view materials and when they are made public allows users to create an archive that truly represents their life story. Perhaps there are memories they aren’t yet ready to share with the world. These memories can be stored in a Permanent Archive at Permanent.org until the user deems the time is right for the materials to be made public. In a nutshell, Friedman views the Permanent Archives at Permanent.org as “a safe place to build archives that might not fit with the FamilySearch restrictions.”
The partnership between The Permanent Legacy Foundation and FamilySearch makes it easy to take advantage of the great features both platforms have to offer. The ability to import material from FamilySearch into Permanent Archives at Permanent.org is already in place. I tested the process and it was seamless. Within seconds, I had begun an archive for my grandfather:
Once FamilySearch users have started curating their Permanent Archives at Permanent.org and there begins to be a demand for syncing back and forth between FamilySearch and Permanent, those services will be built in. Friedman emphasizes that FamilySearch has created a partnership with The Permanent Legacy Foundation because “they believe in our mission and our vision.”
Permanent vs. Other Cloud-Based Storage
When deciding where to store materials, Friedman advises people to ask themselves the question, “Do you want to build an archive, or do you want to back up your data?” He then points out that “Internet giants have created ecosystems that are like walled gardens. They are nice to be inside of, but they are very much constrained to those services. You become reliant on a certain provider.” He further explained, “We don’t have any reason to believe those providers have preservation as a goal. They are super convenient, but they haven’t given me any faith that their goal is to maintain the integrity of my materials. They degrade resolution. They put up new terms of service to prevent access to materials. They change copyright and ownership requirements. Those kinds of practices are in their business interest.”
Friedman continues, “Our goal as a non-profit cultural heritage organization is to preserve the materials put on our platform and to make them accessible to the individual user – and to the broader community when the user chooses – not to extract more revenue from them. We charge an up-front fee that is the cost of storage. We will never degrade the integrity of that relationship to extract wealth from your materials. There is no doubt that the money the large internet giants can throw at their tech and the ecosystems they’ve created are unparallelled in convenience. But you have to make a choice: Do you want convenience or durability? You can’t always have both. We’re working on both, but we lean deeply into the durability piece.”
At the conclusion of our interview, Friedman pointed out that we have a social change opportunity–an opportunity to work together to achieve a goal of democratizing permanence. He said, “There is no other organization like Permanent. There are other for-profits that have a one-time payment model and make a promise. They all suffer from the same fundamental market problems. They’re driven by investors, and their goal is to make revenue, get returns. Our relationship to users is driven by preservation only, not by profit.”
Should You Build a Personal Digital Archive at Permanent.org?
The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a new organization with a mission to preserve your digital legacy. With its non-profit endowment model, there is very little risk to jumping in right now and giving it a try. As it grows, the foundation is excited to receive feedback from users and continue to expand opportunities for families and individuals to preserve their family history AND their current lives for future generations–Permanently!