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from David Nathan, SOAS, London
29 June 2010

On Wednesday 30 June, the Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR) at SOAS, University of London, will launch the new version of our website. The site now offers access to endangered languages (EL) resources, subject to conditions applied by depositors.

ELAR implements a new approach to the archiving and dissemination of EL resources. Our system uses a “Web 2.0” or social networking model, where information owners and information users can interact with and via the web-based system. For example, depositors can update their deposits, and manage and monitor access to them. Registered users can apply to depositors for access to restricted materials. The archive becomes redefined as a forum where users can negotiate with depositors (initially, about access; we plan to add to the possibilities of depositor/user interaction in the coming months).

ELAR’s archive system is designed specifically to meet the needs of EL community members and researchers. The processes, conventions, and interfaces of social networking are a good fit with our understanding of the needs of endangered languages documentations and its various stakeholders. While protocol (collection and observance of sensitivities and restrictions) is important for documentary linguistics, conditions of access can be diverse, yet need to be accountably managed by a “system”. Using a flexible, web-based facility makes access control, monitoring and authorisation more flexible, nuanced, and dynamic. In fact, the majority of our depositors have already indicated that they prefer to allow access as a result of application from potential users on a case-by-case basis.

We also felt that the existing genre of EL archives finds it difficult to fully meet the often-expressed, but rarely met, goal of making it equally feasible for community members to access resources. For example, viewing deposits at ELAR will show resources easily accessed by the languages speakers’ names, enabling community members to locate resources in terms of their own community/social perspectives, rather than technical or linguistic ones.

While hoping that ELAR will make a significant contribution to the development of documentary linguistics, we understand that fixes and improvements will be needed, so we sincerely invite feedback and suggestions for improvement of our site (we’ll do our best to respond, even though we are a team of only 2.5 people!).

ELAR’s online system is built around a set of protocol categories, derived from the categories on our deposit form. There are 4 major categories, each of which matches rights to access resources with the recognised roles of users. The categories are U (User - allows access to all non-restricted resources), R (Researcher - allows access to those recognised as researchers in an area relevant to linguistics or endangered languages), C (Community member - those affiliated with the language documented), and S (Subscriber - those granted individual rights to access by the depositor).

What to see: anyone can see the top pages of the site, with metadata for the deposits. For those deposits which are access-enabled (see the front page, elar.soas.ac.uk), anyone can see basic information about the deposit. To go further and see resources, all users have to register with ELAR. If you already have an ELAR user account then you can access resources, subject to their restrictions, and any additional user roles you may attain.

While about 30% of materials are completely open to access, all but a few resources in the collection are accessible to those who become recognised as a community member (decided by each depositor or their delegate), a researcher (decided by ELAR) or as a subscriber to a particular deposit (decided by the depositor or delegate upon application).

Initially, we have prepared 12 deposits for release, with the co-operation of their depositors. These deposits cover many geographic areas and a range of access types. Deposits by Lahaussois (Koyi Rai, Nepal), Chambers (Kumbokota, Solomon Islands), Jukes (Ratahan, Indonesia) and Morey (Singhpo and Turung, India) are open. Deposits by Bowern (Yan-nhangu, Australia), Jany (Chuxnabán Mixe, Mexico), Morrison (Bena, Tanzania), Caballero (Choguita Rarámuri, Mexico), Mendez (Ayutla Mixe, Mexico) and Budd (Bierebo, Vanuatu) are accessible upon application for subscription approved by the depositors. Kono’s deposit (Kiksht, USA) is currently accessible to recognised community members only. Throughout the year we will release further deposits at the rate of about one per week.

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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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