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!

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