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  • Curation of Oral Tradition from Legacy Recordings:An Australian Example
  • Nick Thieberger (bio)


Hundreds of hours of ethnographic field recordings and their associated oral tradition were destined to be lost until the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC, was established in 2003 to digitize and curate this legacy made by Australian academic researchers since the 1960s (Barwick and Thieberger 2006; Thieberger and Barwick 2012).1 These recordings in the languages of the region around Australia (broadly speaking, an area that includes Indonesia, Papua New Guinea [PNG], and the Pacific Islands) have high cultural value and are often the only records in these languages. Many languages in this region are spoken by few people and are in danger of being lost because of the pressure from neighboring languages or metropolitan languages such as Indonesian, Tok Pisin, English, or French, and so the records made a generation or more ago become all the more valuable. However, despite their unique heritage value, these recordings were not eligible to be preserved or curated by any existing Australian collecting institution.

A group of linguists and musicologists planned PARADISEC and sought advice from relevant agencies (in particular from the National Library of Australia and the National Film and Sound Archive). This advice was particularly valuable in allowing us to determine appropriate metadata standards (we use Dublin Core and Open Archives Initiative metadata terms as a subset of our catalog’s metadata) and to understand the more hands-on requirements of cleaning and repairing moldy or damaged analog tapes. We then applied for and received infrastructure funding from the Australian Research Council. With a grant that was to last for just one year, we had to build a successful archive prototype that could then attract further funds.

Over the decade during which it has been running, PARADISEC has digitized several thousand hours of analog recordings in three ingestion units based at each of the participating universities: the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, and the Australian National University. We have also broadened our scope to include any relevant material that needs preservation, regardless of the geographic area it represents or the state of endangerment of the languages involved. In 2011 we initiated an online survey2 to locate further endangered analog collections and to work with their custodians in order to find funds to digitize and curate them before they are lost.

What Is in the Collection?

The contents of the various collections range from hundreds of recordings on a particular language made in the course of extensive fieldwork all the way through to isolated, short examples recorded opportunistically in a language. The records themselves range from narratives through to sung, chanted, and spoken performances as well as instrumental music. The collections from the 1960s and 1970s typically represent the work of deceased or retired scholars, so there is usually limited contextual information to include in the catalog. Occasionally there are handwritten transcripts of these recordings that we have included as scanned TIF or PDF files. These legacy collections include: Professor Stephen Wurm’s several hundred tapes, with 120 Solomon Islands tapes and transcripts/fieldnotes from the 1970s (some of which have been used in later research by Åshild Næss [2006]); the ethnographer Roderic Lacey’s collection of 118 tapes from the early 1970s used as the basis for his work on “Oral Traditions as History: An Exploration of Oral Sources among the Enga of the New Guinea Highlands”; James Weiner’s collection of some 100 cassettes in the Foi language of Highlands PNG, the basis for his work on poetics in the language; Arthur Capell’s 114 tapes from the Pacific and PNG from the 1950s (and 30 archive boxes of fieldnotes of which we have placed 14,000 page images online3); Bert Voorhoeve’s 180 tapes from West Papua (mainly in Asmat) from the late 1960s; and Tom Dutton’s 295 PNG tapes from the 1970s. Currently in our accession queue is a collection of recordings made by the anthropologist Ted Schwartz during his fieldwork with Margaret Mead on Manus island in the 1950s.

PARADISEC is making information available in an ethically...

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