Where Do We Need to Go From Here?



World Digital Preservation Day: ELDP Legacy Materials

Today is World Digital Preservation Day (#WDPD2019), and here at the Endangered Languages Archive  we are celebrating by showcasing our deposits that were funded by the Legacy Material Grant from ELDP. 

It is estimated that there are 6,500 languages spoken in the world today, and that 50% of them will be gone by the end of the century. Due to globalization, the speed in which languages are shifting and disappearing has increased dramatically over the past century. Languages that express unique knowledge, history and worldviews are disappearing without a trace, with no documentation or description of their existence.

Thanks to digital archiving, we are able to document vast numbers of endangered languages. The Endangered Language Archive holds audio and video recordings representing more than 500 endangered languages (with more substantial data on about 300 languages). The recordings are safe in the long-term digital repository, and are accessible and free of charge to researchers, communities and the general public.

But what about all the recordings made before this recent peak in technology? Video cassettes, tapes, vinyl and written material with uncountable hours of important linguistic material are under enormous risk. The 2018 fire in the National Museum of Brazil which completely destroyed indigenous language and extinct language collections is a wake-up call to the need to keep these invaluable materials safe, and one way to avoid this potential and irreversible damage is to digitize them. And this is precisely what ELDP are achieving with their new Legacy Material Grant.

Offering up to £10,000 per project, the Legacy Material Grant specifically supports the digitization and archiving of legacy materials which are a rich resource for the documentation of the world’s linguistic diversity and are in danger of being lost. The grant lasts from six to twelve months, including training, to help the grantee with the digitization of recordings of endangered or moribund languages in analogue format which are not part of an existing repository. Once the material has been digitized, it is safely stored in the ELAR collection and made openly accessible.

The collections that are the target of these grants are in private hands or in small repositories without any access to resources for digitization. The collections may include audio and video recordings (e.g., on tapes or reel to reel and so on), field notes, text collections and photographs. Typically, this data was collected without an archiving plan in place, and are in or about languages which are endangered or no longer spoken.

Legacy Material Grant projects may develop existing data collections in a variety of ways with a view to making them accessible and discoverable, but the primary focus must be on safeguarding and preserving legacy materials through digitization and archiving.

An example of a language recently deposited in the ELAR collection via the Legacy Material Grant is the language Itelmen, belonging to the Chukotko-Kamchatkan language family from Russia. In the late 1990s, when depositor Erich Kasten had made the recordings for the collection, the number of Itelmen speakers he could work with was less than 20. Now, the likelihood of Itelmen first language speakers left is 3, all around the age of 80.

The collection includes 68 minutes of Itelmen texts from some of the last speakers from the west coast of Kamchatka, the majority recorded in the late 1990s. The seven Itelmen texts of this collection contain remembrances of earlier Itelmen village life on the west coast of Kamchatka, as well as tales and songs. Legacy Material Grantee and ELAR depositor Erich Kasten is supported by ELDP to digitise these recordings, keeping them safe and accessible in the ELAR digital catalogue. They are fully accessible here.

Erich Kasten also has two other deposits coming to ELAR through the Legacy Material Fund: his recordings of Even and Koryak from Russia are in the process of being curated and will be available once the new ELAR catalogue is up and running. Stay tuned!

Other Legacy Material Grantees include PARADISEC director Nick Thieberger, who has recently deposited the ‘Digitisation of North Malaita recordings‘, which includes the documentation of endangered languages To’abaita, Lau, Baeggu, Baelelea, and Pijin. It includes digital copies of over 200 cassette tapes and over 40 reel tapes of music (traditional and contemporary), traditional stories, history, life histories, extensive enquiries about traditional and present day customs/culture, political history, labour history, and more. The collection was gathered from 1971 to 1976, with some additional material from 1985. Thieberger has also deposited ‘Vanuatu Cultural Centre tape digitisation‘ via the Legacy Material Grant, containing seventeen endangered languages from Vanuatu. These are digitised open reels and cassettes made over the past 50 years.

Digitising tapes from Madang, PNG’ is the third deposit by Nick Thieberger under the Legacy Material Grant, which includes collections of tapes in at least nine languages of Papua New Guinea, and also the German pidgin Unserdeutsch. Some tapes date from the 1960s and are records of local oral tradition. The collection has approximately 200 hours of recording in wav and mp3 formats, including a variety of word lists, vocabularies, stories, historical texts and language descriptions.

The collections by Nick Thieberger are currently under curation, and we are looking forward to sharing them with you with our brand new ELAR website, which will be out soon! If you are interested in other Legacy Material Grant deposits we have, please contact us in the comments or via elararchive@soas.ac.uk.

Happy #WDPD!