Oral history – Mapping Endangered Oral Cultures Cambridge


Will he listen to the story of his grandfather Anniko Khorotetto when he grows up? Tambei Tundra, Yamal 2011

For those interested in oral history, heritage and archiving: Here are some impressions of the “Charting vanishing voices” workshop, held by the Cambridge World Oral Literature Project .  The workshop is on recent developments all over the world preserving oral cultural heritage. people from academic projects, practitioners, and data archiving specialists working with advanced multimedia technologies talked about archiving, questions of access for future generations, and recent research

I was there there from the ORHELIA project because I wanted to find out from professionals like google, UNESCO and the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics about their technologies of data accessibility, archiving mapping.

This is timely for us as we also aim to feed our materials in to some sort of database that can be used much longer than a scientific project runs. Imagine how great it would be if a great-grand child of an elder that we interviewed will be able to go back in 30 years and listen to her great grandma’s life story.

The World Oral Literature project is run by Dr Mark Turin, who was a guest at the Arctic Centre Anthropology team back in 2009 when we had the Final Boreas Conference. He’s got a contribution in our conference volume. He also established the vanishing Worlds foundation .

The presence of many internet-professionals gives the whole workshop a twist towards open-access and free for everybody ideology. Now when it comes to language documentation, oral literature, poetry and other works of oral arts, there is little concern about possible confidentiality of information, or the idea of privacy of data. This is the most important difference that I see to our ORHELIA project. We focus exclusively on individual livelihoods and biographies for our analysis of the relations between inhabitants of the Arctic shore and authorities of various kinds. Therefore it is clear that some people may not want their personal lives made accessible for the rest of the world.

We therefore have to think about different levels of access to our research data, for example by relatives of the people to whom we talk, or by fellow Arctic inhabitants, but maybe not by authorities for example. This is an important question of research ethics. In the oral history of 20th century Mongolia project here at Cambridge University, they were very formal about this and made each of their research partners in the field sign a consent form designed by Cambridge University Lawyers. We should think about designing such a consent form two, where we let people tick a box which level of use of their precious narratives they allow us.

Now some bits and pieces from presentations that I found interesting:
Tim Brookes, endangered alphabets project. He is a writer and woodworker, who takes scripts and alphabets partially independent of a spoken language, as pieces of art, and as strenghthening identity marker. Tim carves these ancient scripts on beautiful wood plates and as such gives these vanishing scripts another aestethic life. For example, he went to the Chittagong Hill tracts in Bangladesh with 13 indigenous peoples, many of which with their own literary tradition. E.g. the Chakma. A hand full still write and read it.  There, the father of Shanti was killed by the army, when he was 4, then his culture and language connection disappeared.  He had to find one of 5 other people who still knew it. Chakma became emblematic for his own identity. Another one of his works is on Glagolithic: it’s a script in ancient eastern Europe, used as a kind of cultural branding marker for identification. Particularly in Croatia.
Stephen Rhind-Tutt, publisher, working at Alexander Street Press . They specialise in online publications and databases. Stephen makes the point that the book itself is not necessarily the best medium of publishing itself.   They have for example  ethnographic videos online, and oral history online. Not only do they upload films there, but they also transcribe them and make them searchable. For example, 30 minutes news is 12 double spaced pages. That may make finding information much faster. Users have to subscribe to this.  You can also annotate what you watch, comment, do your own indexes. One of their innovations is semantic indexing, which they let the computer do. It makes material searchable much more exactly. You can for example saerch for “writings by Jesuits, written in French, discussing trade involving the Huron”. For that they add a certain set of metadata to information that enables such searching of electronic publications. This stands for an increasingly prominent shift in publishing towards online and away from print, which has much less outreach capacity. Today many academic books come out in a couple of hundred printed copies per book. With online publishing, we get work out for less money and to many more people.
I think it may be good to move beyond what they call ‘the book paradigm’ in publication, but on the other hand, this presentation of content blurrs authorship, makes it much harder to account for sources used. Piers Vitebsky also wonders how you can distinguish for particularly outstanding authors in such an online publication system that prioritises content and quantity. Who distinguishes what is quality, and what happens with authorship in general in these new forms of publication?

Cecilia Ode from the University of Amsterdam made a great presentation about her efforts to bring back narratives, stories by elders and language materials back to people in Andriushkino, tundra Yukaghir land, Siberia, and also to Anjaj village in Indonesia. Among other materials, she produced beautiful photobooks, and a great volume in tundra Yukaghir, Russian and english with stories from tundra Yukaghirs, one of the Arctic’s most remote and isolated peoples. Her website is very rich. She even shares fieldnotes there, which is very brave and insightful. Then she also developed a teaching module for use online. It turns out that she knows some of our ORHELIA project members! E.g. Roza Laptander.

Her great presentation showed how important it is that the researcher returns to the people multiple times during many years, and gets close to the people. Much of the discussion was therefore about ways to communicate and present data in ways that are participatory with the people in the field we work with. One good way of this is geospatial referencing, linking e.g. audiovisual data, life histories of our partners in the ORHELIA project, with platforms such as google earth or so. This is in line with a growing trend, and there are already services that let you bundle search and compose datasets from different projects like that. E.g. the europeana 4D interface – e4D – enables comparative visualisation of multiple queries and supports data annotated with time span data .

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3 Responses to Oral history – Mapping Endangered Oral Cultures Cambridge

  1. http://www.endangeredlanguages.com/
    This is an interesting website powered by google which gives apparently open access data on all languages in their database. New ones can be added by anyone who has an account. I think probably these people will be at the Cambridge workshop as well so I try to find out what we can learn for our planned ORHELIA database from them.

  2. Tim Brookes says:

    Thanks so much for mentioning the Endangered Alphabets project. I’m always eager to hear from anyone who has any interest in the area, and who may be able to alert me to other minority or endangered scripts about which I currently know little or nothing!
    Best wishes,

  3. Pingback: Endangered Languages and Cultures » Blog Archive » Charting Vanishing Voices: A Collaborative Workshop to Map Endangered Oral Cultures

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