The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages: A big step towards giving back

Montserrat Madariaga bio photo By Montserrat Madariaga

Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages. Charles Darwin University et al, 2012, Accessed 17 oct. 2018

Reviewed by Montserrat Madariaga-Caro, Graduate Student, Department of Spanish and Portuguese, University of Texas at Austin

Simplicity is one of the key words for the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages. The digital repository contains over 3000 books written in 50 Indigenous languages of the Northern Territory of Australia. This huge number of texts is available through a very easy-to-use interface displaying a clickable geographical map, with icons that redirect the user to the materials.

Another key word for this collection is right there in its name: “Living”. The books are classified as “endangered literatures” on the website, thus the archive is set up to enhance their aliveness by displaying them in an open access online platform. The main goals of this ongoing endeavor are to reconnect these literatures to the communities they belong to, and to aknowledge their place in the Indigenous intelectual histories of the Northern Territory (Bow et al 348).

Why were these texts disconnected from their social origins in the first place? The answer is in the background story.

The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages was created in 2012 by the Charles Darwin University, the Australian National University and the NT Department of Education and Children’s Services, with funding from the Australian Research Council through the Linkage Infrastructure Equipment and Facilities scheme. For a second phase, the archive received financial aid again from the Research Council, and added three more educational institutions to the working team. All these organizations partnered up to gather the scattered books of twenty school-based Literature Production Centres at the Northern Territory, which from 1973 to early 2000 produced an amazing amount of Indigenous knowledge recorded in very simple literary projects.

The “centres” were part of a discontinued Bilingual Program of northern Australia that aimed to improve the literacy of aboriginal children in their own languages and English. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people worked together in the making of written and illustrated books that contain “teaching materials, literacy primers, childrens’ stories, stories of local cultural significance such as environmental knowledge, traditional practices, oral literature, ethno-botany, history, non-sacred versions of Dreaming or Creation stories, experience stories, instructional manuals, cautionary tales, and many others” (Bow et al 348). The source of these documents were the oral narratives, and common knowledge of the Indigenous communities in their traditional languages. Due to changes to educational policies, by 2010 the majority of the Centres closed, and the schools managed the materials in different ways that ranged from library use to actually destroying them (Bow et al 347-250). Today, some of the physical books are available in special collections of university libraries, and the rest, a large number, are dispersed within local educational centers, and private collections of community members. Therefore, access to these books and the knowledge they hold was selective and/or difficult before the creation of the digital collection.

Access is a guiding force for this archive, but for whom and how are decisive questions. Jeannette A. Bastian states “the creation of collective memory by nations, communities, or groups of people depends upon their ability to access their own cultural heritage” (81). For Bastian, access should be a fundamental component of custody. The Living Archive takes this insightful argument in practice as an example of postcustodial archiving. The project is not about creating a physical collection of the books, rather it is invested in making mostly neglected material reachable for a diverse group of people –linguists, teachers, students, researches, as their website guide shows, but more importantly the aboriginal communities. This constitutes a redress to the Indigenous peoples that created the books, because the Living Archive liberated their cultural heritage from the custody of a discontinued bilingual educational program and its precarious aftermath.

What, then, does this redress to the communities look like?

When one enters the website for the first time a notice titled “Respecting ownership” shows up. It indicates that the contents belong to the “Aboriginal language owners, creators of the materials and their descendants.” This statement distances the Living Archive from practices of appropiation of Indigenous knowledges and goods, historically perpetuated by western libraries, repositories, and museums to this day. The notice also serves as a warning to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander users about the inclusion of “names, images, and voices of people who have passed away”, showing an ethical accountability to the Indigenous peoples’ spirituality.

Browsing the website is very easy. Also, it is friendly to multiple devices and operating systems. The archivists wanted to make it as inclusive and inviting as they could thinking of “remote communities … specially people who may have limited access to and familiarity with technology” (Bow et al 356). Thus, apart from the mentioned interactive map organized by places and languages, there is a very simple and intuituve menu bar to search for materials by “Place”, “Language”, “People” (authors and illustrators), and “Books”.

After a selection has been made on the main site, a new page shows a collection of book-covers. Some of them are very colorful, and most of them have a naïve esthetic meant for attracting the attention of children. The metadata is thorough –title, author, illustrator, place, year of publication, abstract, description/genre, and others–, and it is followed by a “Rights Statement”. This announcement asserts a commitment to the Indigenous creators by contacting them for permission to publish, and calls on users to reach out if they feel the book has culturally sensitive material that should not be shown.

The rights statement entails a decolonial practice: Most of the books’ copyright belong to the Northern Territory Government, but the archivists decided to privilege the intellectual ownership of the creators, and their will to share their creations or not to. Sharing is an essencial part of the project. All the documents are available for exploring in PDF format, and for download. The website has a Creative Common License that favours the use of the materials. This aspect can be read as a way of returning the books to the communities (lets remember they are written in 50 different Indigenous languages), and a way of disseminating self-representations of their cultures (as opposed to a scientific outsider’s portrait of them).

To sum up, or more accurately to start the conversation, some conclusions are called for. It is important to acknowledge that the Living Archive is not community-based (following Michelle Caswell’s reflections), that is to say, it is not a grassroot independent project looking for a radical decolonization of the Aboriginal communities’ heritage. This is not the case because the archive was designed, and today is managed mostly by powerful knowledge-making universities external to the communities. The website is hosted in the Charles Darwin University Library’s open source Fez and Fedora based research repository. That being said, the Living Archive is a good community-centered model for educational institutions from all over the world that can gather the resources, have the infrastructure and hire the staff to make a project like this possible. Searching for the creators of the texts and illustrations, asking for permission, being open to a negative answer, and being open to removing books from the website shows a long needed respectful attitude towards Indigenous materials in the context of our colonial histories and present practices.

All in all, what is at stake in the making of this digital repository is the postcustodial turn of archival work, that in the context of Indigenous collections means giving back. The Living Archive gives back by negotiating control over the books. It opens the doors to thinking of postcustodial practices for Indigenous collections preserved by powerful institutions in more radical, decolonial ways. It is a great example of a step foward, with room for more giving back, for instance, they could change the name Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages to Living Archive of Aboriginal Literatures, to redirect the focus from a linguistic interest to what Daniel Heath Justice has stated: “Indigenous literatures matter because Indigenous peoples matter” (211).

Works Cited

Bow, Catherine et al. “Developing a Living Archives of Aboriginal Languages”. Language Documentation and Conservation. 8, 2014, pp. 345-360.

Bastian, Jeannette. “Taking Custody, Giving Access: A Postcustodial role for a new Century”. Archivaria. 53, 2002, pp. 76-93.

Heath Justice, Daniel. Why Indigenous Literatures Matter. Wilfred Laurier University Press. 2018.