Sharing the load? Problems with the ‘lone depositor’ model for the archiving of materials in endangered language archives

Ruth Singer recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

Traditionally collections in endangered languages archives are identified with a single depositor. This depositor is typically a researcher, who is not a member of the community in which the recordings were made. This depositor decides on access restrictions to the materials, ideally in consultation with the community. There are a number of quite separate problems with this position, for those who manage archives and for those who find themselves in the position of lone depositor. In this era of collaborative fieldwork, we can also ask whether the lone depositor model is the best one for communities who speak endangered languages. One suggestion is to make collections open access so that the depositor does not need to be contacted. Another suggestion is to name a number of depositors for each collection, so that no single person has sole responsibility. In this LIP we will discuss potential solutions to the problems of the lone depositor model in the light of participants experiences as depositors and archivists.

On the 14th of March 2014, we held a LIP discussing one solution to this problem of the lone depositor. It is possible to remove some of the responsibilities of the depositor by the archive insisting that all or most of the collection is open access. This means that the depositor need not be contacted in order to obtain permission to access materials in that collection. This lightens the workload for both archive managers and the depositor. It also makes it much faster and easier for the general public and the community of speakers to access the collection. However, community members and linguists may not always be in favour this solution. ELAR is currently insisting on this approach for all recipients of its current round of grants. For data that has not yet been recorded, such an approach is possible, yet it may exclude a number of communities from depositing anything and will certainly restrict the kind and amount of linguistic data that is deposited.

Other issues come into play when we are dealing with data that has already been recorded. Much linguistic data was recorded before the advent of digital archives. In many cases depositors now have to decide whether the permissions given for access to the recordings in the past can be extended to allow online access to digital recordings. It is not always possible to consult the original speakers. The speakers on the recordings may have died or the depositor may have moved fieldsites and not have the opportunity to return. This places a responsibility on the depositor to make a decision. In this session a good suggestion was the idea of depositing the consent forms that were obtained for a recording in the archive too. We discussed the way that depositors have to continue to communicate with community members and sometimes, go against the original wishers of the individual who made the recording after they have died.

A participant discussed a quandry they have – a deceased speaker didn’t want any community members to access her recordings, but did give researchers permission to use them. The descendants of this speaker now wish to access the recordings – what should the depositor do? One suggestion was to follow the wishes of the descendants, over the wishes of the deceased speaker. Another idea was to put a moratoriam of 20 years on the recordings.

In response to the blog of the March 14th LIP on open access, an issue mentioned to me by a number of archivists is that they often cannot contact depositors. If a collection’s access restrictions require contacting a lone depositor this renders the entire collection closed. The lack of communication may be because the depositor fails to respond to emails, is dead or in some way incapacitated. A number of the new linguistic data archives are large and international. This makes them quite different to the national and regional archives also used by linguists. Archivists of national and regional archives can maintain close ties to networks of researchers and communities in their area. However, managers of international archives cannot be expected to be connected to the vast networks of linguists that work in each area around the world. However these networks can be used to help archivists get in touch with a linguist, after that linguist changes institution, email address or leaves academia.  It is also much harder for international archives to communicate directly with the relevant community of speakers, as archivists may not have the local knowledge to work out the best way communicate with people living in a remote area. They may not share a common language the community of speakers and may lack cultural understanding about how authority for recordings are handled in the community.  These are some reasons why, despite the problems, linguists are often the point of contact for archives, rather than the community of speakers.

One solution suggested at the March 2014 Linguistics in the Pub is for multiple people to share responsibility for a collection, referred to as ‘stewardship’ by those who manage responsibiltiies for open source software. The joint depositors could share the responsibility using a consensus model. Or the person who might have been the ‘lone depositor’ can be at the top of a hierarchy of responsibilities. If the highest ranked depositor is not contactable, the next in a chain can be contacted, etc.  Or responsibilities could be organised according to expertise, musicologists for music recordings, linguists for elicitation data, etc. The essential requirement for the depositiors in the group would be that they have some understanding of the context in which the recordings were made. Ideally through having made some of the recordings in the collection and having worked with the community for an extended period of time but if not, through having worked in similar situations and understanding potential issues that might arise. We discussed this at LIP and some of the linguists had already used this strategy, with a particular researcher the ‘head’ depositor and others to be contacted if the ‘head’ researcher could not be contacted. This may not completely solve all archivists problems, as it means there are in fact potentially more depositors to communicate with but communicating with depositors is always going to be a large part of the work in running an archive.

[Update: The new ELDP new grantees contract requires depositors to appoint a delegate, who will take responsibility for their collection, if the depositor cannot be contacted]

Another strategy which would greatly help where lone depositors become uncontactable would be to make the informal networks of linguists and other researchers who work with communities in the same region more visible. If I can’t get in touch with an Australianist for example, I know their close colleagues and can contact them to find out if they are overseas or in the field. One of the local archivists I spoke to mentioned that a particular linguist was terminally ill and not able to discuss access to her collections, so access to those collections was not possible. The archivists were aware of this so although it was a problem, it was not a mystery why she was not contactable. Similarly in a local context, such as amongst Australianists, there are often key individuals, like the linguist David Nash (ANU) who maintains extensive networks with other Australianists, and if all else fails can always be relied on to track down a difficult-to-find linguist.  The ‘social network’ aspect of the ELAR archive seemed to build on these existing networks to some extent – it is not clear how much this aspect of the interface has been used, or how long it will persist.

As always when discussions of ethics come up there were many individual issues discussed:

  • Parents give permission for us to make recordings of children – what happens when they are adults, should I seek permission again?
  • Young women traditionally participate in ceremonies topless – should I keep access to these recordings restricted?
  • What to do if a naked child wanders past the video camera partway through the recording? – pixellating, was suggested as a solution, it is apparently becoming easier
  • Metadata makes it easier to search for recordings of people by name – and this might make online bullying easier – should I use pseudonyms?

As always we also discussed how archiving can be very time-consuming, stressful and thankless (one participant had just archived a few decades of work). How can we make the job easier so more people archive? One participant suggested selective archiving –do we really need to archive everything? It was suggested that just a sample of some texts that can be open access is the best collection. And other stuff such as elicitation will eventually be thrown out as the researcher’s hard drive gets to full. Personally I think unless the data is obviously rubbish could never possibly be useful to anyone, better to archive it if possible. But there are signs that funds are drying up for digital archives and as a consequence, some are getting more fussy.  So researchers who want to keep everything may have to find their own secure backed up storage for data.

So the idea of joint stewardship for collections does have some benefits compared to the lone depositor model.  It offers alternative points of contact for archives – but of course does not solve all our problems!

Playing texts and media—EOPAS again

While I obviously like EOPAS as a model for corpus presentation (see the earlier blog post about it here), I found a renewed enthusiasm for it today as I was checking the meaning of a word in a text I was translating from South Efate. The word lunak does not appear in any of my notes nor in the dictionary, but appears a few times in a story told by the late Kalsarap Namaf. I wrote to Joel Kalpram, who is from Erakor village and speaks the language, and asked him if he knew the word.

Continue reading ‘Playing texts and media—EOPAS again’ »

What flows from ngaka-rna : how naming books spread a Dieri word

Coining a new name from a word taken from an Australian language often has complex implications, even if the naming agency is oblivious to them. When the name is for a place, a suburb or a street or a park, the official approval involves the relevant local government body. Two writers went into some of the issues a few years ago:

  • Tony Birch (2010 [1992]) sees the application of indigenous names to ‘houses, streets, suburbs and whole cities’ as ‘an exercise in cultural appropriation’. He draws a distinction between the restoration of indigenous placenames (such as Gariwerd ~ Grampians in western Victoria), and the fresh application to the built environment of a word imported from some Australian language.
  • Sam Furphy (2002) earlier discussed the role of what he dubbed ‘naming books’: popular twentieth century booklets of lists of ‘Aboriginal words’ such as Endacott (1923), Thorpe (1927), Kenyon (1930), Cooper (1952), which, for all the expressed good intentions of their compilers, have contributed to a homogenised perception of Australian languages: ‘The earliest popular naming books … make virtually no reference to the variety of languages spoken by the indigenous people of Australia, such that an uninformed reader could be forgiven for believing that there was only one Aboriginal language.’ (Furphy 2002:62) ‘Naming books simplify and romanticise Aboriginal words and remove them from their cultural and linguistic context.’ (Furphy 2002:68)

I’ve recently come upon an example which illustrates a combination of both concerns: one where official placenaming has drawn on the notorious naming booklets. Continue reading ‘What flows from ngaka-rna : how naming books spread a Dieri word’ »

Hurry again – Groote Eylandt linguist position


Anindilyakwa Services Aboriginal Corporation (ASAC) is located on Groote Eylandt, situated on the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria, is a newly established entity with the core objective to relive the poverty, improve the well-being, and promote the community development of the Anindilyakwa people.
The Linguistics Centre is currently responsible for effectively promoting and fostering Anindilyakwa language and culture through the provision of services for the benefit of indigenous communities of the Groote Archipelago.

Reporting to the Cultural Centres Project Manager, this project position is responsible for assessing the current linguistics operations and advising on the strategic direction of the Linguistics Centre into the future, in collaboration with the Cultural Centres, and to provide a strategic plan and further operational plan, detailing the future of linguistics within the Groote Archipelago. This is a great opportunity to work in a vibrant and complex linguistic and cultural environment.
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Hurry! Job as linguist in Barkly and Alice regions of Northern Territory – deadline extended to Monday 16 June

Short-term job – forwarded by Susan Moore – for more information contact her; tel: (08) 89511662 e:

Northern Territory Department of Education
Job Title: Senior Language Resource Officer
Designation: Senior Professional 1
Work Unit: School Education South
Position Number: 19164
Responsible To: Manager Learning and Performance

Primary Objective
Support the delivery of vernacular and English language programs in the context of Indigenous Languages and Cultures Programs and Indigenous education as appropriate to the region.
Continue reading ‘Hurry! Job as linguist in Barkly and Alice regions of Northern Territory – deadline extended to Monday 16 June’ »

Crowd Sourcing: LIP discussion

Lauren Gawne recaps last week’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.

The topic of crowd sourcing is one that relates to many industries, and almost all participants in this month’s LIP have had some experience of crowd-sourced projects from the perspective of being part of the crowd. In this discussion though, we looked at the topic of crowd-sourcing specifically within the domain of endangered language documentation. This topic has two related, but distinct, facets. The first is the sourcing of funding from the crowd and the second is the sourcing of labour. We discussed both topics, and the benefits and down-sides we saw arising from each.

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Language documentation index

The map below is built on information produced by a group of linguists working in Vanuatu. It is a sample documentation index that provides a visualisation of what is known about each language. Note that this is not a language vitality index of the kind outlined in Harmon and Loh (2010). Leaving aside thorny questions of what constitutes a language and language name (see Good and Cysouw 2013) and choosing to use a given set of language names (that is not limited to ISO-639-3), this exercise produced a map of the languages of Vanuatu, with each language assigned an index number on a 21 point scale assigning 1-5 points for each of four categories: Grammar; Lexicon; Texts; Media corpus. The icons are colour-coded (white = 0; red = 1-5; purple = 6-10; yellow = 11-15; green =16-20). 54 languages in this list have a zero rating, indicating that virtually nothing is known about those languages.

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Somali phone dictionary

On June 13th we Arnold Zable will launch a Somali-English Dictionary app for both Android and iOS platforms, using the successful Ma! Iwaidja dictionary model. Opening screen of the Somali dictionary appThis is the product of a collaboration between the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Melbourne and Burji Arts, a Melbourne-based Somali arts and cultural organisation. The app contains some 26,000 Somali words and English equivalents with audio for selected items, so users can hear words or phrases. This app will have the capability of accepting input from users who can contribute items and suggest alternate pronunciations.

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Garbled voices: restoring Aboriginal words and meanings in historical sources

All who can make it to Canberra are welcome to attend our workshop next week.

Garbled voices from the archives: A workshop on restoring Aboriginal words and meanings in historical sources.

Date and time: 9am-4pm, 15-16 April 2014 Lunch provided (There is no obligation to attend all sessions)
Location: Room W3.03, Level 3, Baldessin Precinct Building (110), The Australian National University

How do we make sense of Aboriginal words recorded in early sources when the language cannot be identified? What if the language is known, but no speakers remain?

Our workshop seeks to bring together scholars who routinely work with old sources on Australia’s indigenous cultures, from Aboriginal people investigating their heritage, to linguists, archivists, anthropologists and historians. The standing challenge of working with historical documents is that individual scribes applied their own personal spelling conventions, and may not have heard the sounds accurately to begin with. As a result, many of the most important ethnographic, linguistic and historical materials are accessible only to specialist scholars who have knowledge of Aboriginal sound systems and long experience working with archival sources.

Over two days, the workshop will hear presentations from a range of practitioners who will describe informative case studies and offer practical interpretive techniques. Plenty of time is given for discussion between each session. Feel free to bring your own archival conundrums for analysis by the group.

No registration is required but please RSVP to Piers Kelly (Piers.Kelly @ for catering purposes.

More details here:

A copy of the workshop program can be downloaded here.

PARADISEC stats for 2014

It has been quite some time since our last update on the contents of the PARADISEC archive. Since our report on this blog two years ago, we have added 88 collections bringing the total to 265 collections. There are now 9,836 items and 60,516 digitised recordings, images and videos in the archive, which is now 7.35 TB in size. The archive now includes over 4000 hours of audio.

Some of the collections that have recently been archived include Lamont Lindstrom’s Kwamera recordings from Vanuatu, Malcolm Ross’ Papua New Guinea recordings, Roger Blench’s Niger-Congo recordings, Renée Lambert-Brétière’s  Kwoma and Tok Pisin recordings (PNG) and Don Daniels’ materials from Madang Province of PNG. A collection of particular interest is Ted Schwartz’s tapes, dating from the 1950s when he did fieldwork on Manus Island with Margaret Mead.

We have also had our catalogue improved by users providing feedback, allowing us to correct names of participants, and generally enriching information about some of our older material that otherwise has little metadata.

In Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, we are working on getting a few new collections into the archive including Margaret Jolly’s Vanuatu tapes, Lynne McDonald’s Western Solomons recordings and some new manuscript pages from Arthur Capell’s Fiji collection, which are currently being imaged and will be added to PARADISEC’s already extensive collection of Capell images.