Archiving and Language Documentation

Abralin ao Vivo presents a panel session on
Archiving and Language Documentation
Saturday, 11 July 2020 at 17h UTC (10h PDT, 12h CDT, 13h EDT, 14h BRT)

  • Patience Epps (UT-Austin)
  • Ana Paula Brandão (UFPA)
  • Susan Smythe Kung (UT-Austin)
  • Denny Moore (Museu Emílio Goeldi)
  • Zachary O’Hagan (UC-Berkeley)
  • Jorge Emilio Rosés Labrada (U Alberta)

Presentations will be in Portuguese and English.

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As more and more of the world’s languages become endangered, their documentation provides key resources for linguists and communities. Documentary materials provide an empirical basis to inform our knowledge about what is possible in human language, a register of diverse cultural and discursive traditions, and a tangible record of community heritage, offering future generations access to the voices of their parents and grandparents. Yet these materials tend to be fragile and ephemeral – audio and video cassettes break down, notebooks mildew and fade, and even SD cards are prone to fire, flood, and changing technologies – as underscored by tragic events like the Museu Nacional fire of 2018, in which countless precious recordings and manuscripts were lost. More and more, documentary linguists look to digital archives as an essential step in ensuring the preservation, conservation, and access of the outcomes of their work.

In this panel discussion we consider the benefits and challenges associated with archiving in language documentation, relating to issues of preservation, conservation, access, and use of materials. We bring together a set of scholars who are deeply involved in administering, contributing to, and drawing on language archives, with a focus on indigenous languages of Brazil and the Americas.

Turning first to preservation and conservation, we consider the steps that are needed to ensure the quality and longevity of resources. What are the contemporary best practices in curation and backup of materials? What makes an established language archive different from a website? How should researchers approach effective metadata production? What sorts of materials can or should be included in an archival deposit? How can archiving initiatives embrace the broadest possible set of people and resources, including not only contemporary linguists but also anthropologists, legacy collections, community-based initiatives, etc.?

Regarding access, we consider how archived materials may be made accessible, and to whom. How can materials be made available to community members, who may have little experience with the internet, researchers and others? What are the ethical considerations associated with archiving, and how can researchers effectively convey to community members what the process involves for them? What sorts of factors should guide decisions about whether materials should be openly accessible to anyone who visits the archive, or restricted to community members and/or researchers only?

Finally, we explore ways in which language archives can inform ongoing work with indigenous languages, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. For linguists who are unable to do fieldwork, archival materials can offer important alternative sources of data and analysis, and new pathways for investigation. In some cases, the loss of fluent speakers means that archived legacy materials provide the only robust record of a language. Finally, archives can provide key resources for communities who wish to revitalize, maintain, or simply remember their linguistic and cultural heritage.