Networking digital data on endangered languages of the Asia Pacific region

29 November 2006

Since the invention of audio-visual recording technologies in the late nineteenth century, scholars of languages, cultures and musics from around the world have enthusiastically embraced the potential of portable recording technologies — initially audio, and since the 1970s, video — to capture the events that they study. Because of the changing nature of people, societies and technologies, many ethnographic recordings have outlasted the people, traditions and even languages that they recorded. These research recordings now have immense significance not only for researchers but also for the descendants of the people recorded and the cultural heritage communities whose traditions and languages they encode, yet they are more endangered than ever because of the current crisis of format obsolescence for many of the most common audio- and video-recording formats used in the 20th century. This paper discusses issues for finding and preserving these important cultural documents, many of which are held in private collections, or small research collections in Universities or local cultural museums. Many small archives do not have the funding or expertise to digitise and preserve their analogue audiovisual collections. There is some scope for optimism, however, because significant opportunities for collaboration across institutional and even national boundaries have been opened up by emerging high-bandwidth networking and distributed storage technologies. These enable distributed facilities for storage and management of archived research data. Digital technologies can also facilitate including the relevant cultural community collaborations to look after and manage significant audiovisual recordings. The paper discusses these issues through a case study of PARADISEC (the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures) (, an Australian project established in 2003 by the Universities of Sydney, Melbourne and the Australian National University to preserve and make accessible Australian researchers’ field recordings in the Asia-Pacific region.