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Peter K. Austin and David Nathan
Linguistics Department, SOAS
6th January 2009

The Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) was established at SOAS in January 2004, with the first deposits accepted in late 2005. Our initial priority was on preservation but recently the ELAR public catalogue was released and it will soon extend to providing access to materials (where permissions allow). To date, ELAR has received over 50 deposits and stores about 4 terabytes of data. Audio recordings make up about 60% of this (both in terms of the total number of files and the total volume of data).

ELAR was established primarily to preserve and disseminate data collected by grantees from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) and by staff and students from the Endangered Languages Academic Programme (ELAP). Because language documentation is an emerging area that relies a lot on new techniques and technologies, ELAR also provides training, advice and support to ELDP grantees, ELAP staff and students, and others through international training workshops (see, for example, the various organised by ELAR and taught by ELAR and ELAP staff and students and additional experts). ELAR staff also manage the research facilities of the Rausing Room, the Linguistics Resources Room, and the pool of fieldwork equipment available to ELAP staff and students.

ELAR now has four staff, with David Nathan and Ed Garrett being card-carrying linguists and IT professionals, and technicians Tom Castle and Bernard Howard having specialist skills in digital and analogue audio techniques and equipment.

With these resources, skills and experience, ELAR is able to help people who want to archive resources for endangered languages, including individual and retired researchers who may not have alternative sources of equipment or advice. Dietrich Schüller, the former Director of the Austrian Phonogrammarchiv, has warned in a recent paper[.pdf] that the great majority of the world's human cultural heritage is sitting unpreserved and uncatalogued on the shelves of individual researchers. We can help these researchers with preparing materials, including digitising and converting audio, as well as providing advice and training in how to create metadata and cataloguing information.

Over the last few years ELAR has collaborated with a number of individual researchers in preparing their materials for deposit:

  • Dr Shelagh Weir is former curator for Middle Eastern ethnography at the Museum of Mankind (British Museum). Together with Bonnie Stalls (University of Southern California), Shelagh holds unique research tapes on Razihi (a dialect descendant of ancient South Arabian), the language of Jabal Razih, a rugged massif in the north-west highlands of the Republic of Yemen. ELAR provided a cassette digitisation service (for a small fee, as part of a project funded by the British Academy), and gave advice about metadata and cataloguing, in anticipation of receiving the materials for formal deposit
  • Professor Ida Toivonen, Carleton University, Canada, came to London for a week to digitise DAT tapes of Inari Saami spoken in Finland that she collected in the 1990s. We provided Ida with a equipment, trained her in transfer of the audio data to computer files, and worked with her on converting miscellaneous labelling on the tapes to cataloguing metadata for her collection, which is now being deposited at ELAR.
  • Mr Eli Timan, a research associate at ELAP, is a member of the London expatriate Iraqi Jewish community and is documenting his group's unique dialect of Arabic, which is seriously endangered. ELAR assisted Eli with training in several areas including audio recording, metadata creation, and XML
  • Dr Eva Kershaw is a retired scholar living in northern Scotland. During her stay in Brunei in the 1970s she learnt the Dusun (Bisaya) language and recorded fluent speakers, most of who are now deceased. In 2008, Eva spent several weeks working as a guest researcher in the Rausing Room, digitising her large collection of cassette tapes. Subsequently, David Nathan worked with Eva to identify suitable methods for linking her recordings with her transcriptions and notes, and she then went on to turn her transcriptions into a structured database which she then time-aligned using the Transcriber software tool.
  • Dr Roger Kershaw conducted his doctoral research during the 1960's in Malaysia in two Thai-speaking villages in Kelantan. ELAR set up Roger with one of our open-reel recorders, a digital interface and computer, and then Roger spent several days capturing at high resolution the reel-to-reel tapes he had recorded, emerging at the end of the process with high quality digital files on a portable hard disk. Roger plans to use the digitised versions to further his work on the language, as well as to archive the resources at ELAR.

In most of these cases, ELAR staff worked individually with the depositor to establish their needs and priorities, set up equipment, train in its usage, be on hand when problems arose, and provide backup and working copies for the researchers to take away. We also worked intensively with these visitors to analyse their materials and then design data strategies to achieve a balance between the nature of the materials, the researcher's skills, the time that the researcher can feasibly devote to learning new skills to enrich the materials given their other commitments, and their goals for the materials.

ELAR is happy to discuss with endangered languages researchers, organisations, or communities about possibilities for providing advice, services and archiving on an individual or project basis. If you are interested in working with ELAR to deposit your research materials (including digitisation and data preparation), please contact David Nathan [djn AT soas.ac.uk] for further information.

The Authors

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The Transient Building, symbolising the impermanence of language, houses both the Linguistics Department at Sydney University and PARADISEC, a digital archive for endangered Pacific languages and music.
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