Author Archive

Tape gumshoe

Finding tapes that need to be digitised often involves some detective work. Recently, while waiting for a dropoff of tapes (yes, in car park 3), I mused on the noir nature of the work and came up with this vignette.

Perhaps the trickiest collection I’ve dealt with was one created by Fr John Z’graggen in the 1970s, and housed at the Basel Museum in Switzerland. I started negotiating with the Museum curator in 2011, after getting information about the tapes from Prof Andy Pawley in 2007.

The former curator, Christian Kaufmann, warned me that it would be like getting information from officials in the GDR, and he was right. His successor decided the tapes were just fine in the cupboard where they were stored and no access was provided for a couple of years. But then a new curator saw the importance of digitising the collection. With funds we sent from CoEDL she took parts of the collection to Nijmegen in 2015 and 2016 over several train trips, where our colleagues at the Max Planck Institute kindly digitised the tapes, eventually sending us the hard disk of files. These became the Z’graggen collection of 171 recordings.

Another memorable exchange followed an mail that said: “We are in possession of a collection of records which contain sermons preached by a Methodist missionary in the Babatana language, from Choiseul Solomon Islands. They were recorded between 1954-1963. Do you have any suggestions about what can be done with them?”

This collection of 3-inch open reels needed to get from Auckland to Sydney.

I was in Auckland on a Saturday afternoon between 2pm and 6pm en route to Australia and met with the depositor at the airport to pick up the tapes. They were in poor condition, the edges were ‘cupped’ which meant the tape looked like it had frills. Nevertheless, Nick Fowler-Gilmore managed to extract a reasonable signal from the tapes and they became the Nancy Carter collection.

Once, when I had collected some tapes in Drehu from a colleague in Noumea, I was on the plane back next to a biologist who specialised in fungi, so I asked him if it was problematic to be bringing mouldy tapes into Australia, worried that they could be a prohibited import. He said that tape mould was likely to be as benign as bread mould, not problematic except that the inhaled spores can be an irritant. Those tapes became the LS1 collection.

Another major collection with ongoing work is the Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta’s reels and cassettes. These are stored in the ‘tabu’ room at the VKS building in Port Vila, but, with no open reel playback equipment the reels are in desperate need of digitisation. I got a Legacy Materials Grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme to bring tapes back and they have now become the VKS2 collection. A hard disk of files went back to Vila with the original tapes. I got more tapes on a more recent visit, but there is no funding for them. On the left is a great example of the state of some of these tapes. Despite looking like it should be unplayable, below is a sample of the audio that was recovered from this tape (thanks to Nick Fowler-Gilmore for his work on fixing the tape).

Some of the tapes we have worked with, top left, the Hadfield’s’ tapes in Kalgoorlie, WA, then clockwise: Ambong Thompson, Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta; Ambong inspecting tapes; a box of tapes in Madang, PNG; Tony Heraoke, Solomon Islands National Museum; Z’graggen’s tapes at the Basel Museum; cassettes at the Divine Word University in Madang, PNG; Kalgoorlie again; Vanuatu Kaljoral Senta tape room.

Digitising a tape costs around $150, and more if it needs cleaning and special care. When a collection turns up we need to find funding to care for it. Another collection we worked with recently was Ian Frazer’s To’aba’ita (Solomon Islands) recordings comprising 376 items, and representing a detailed ethnographic collection of recordings for a language that otherwise has no recordings available (although there is a fine grammar and dictionary written by Frank Lichtenberk), see the listing in OLAC here. We had a Legacy Materials Grant from the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme to do this work.

And, most recently, we worked on Bob Tonkinson’s 58 tapes from Vanuatu , recorded since the 1960s. The files will go to the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and be available via our catalog. Other tapes in the queue are Helen Wurm’s recordings from Arnhemland, Edith Bavin’s Warlpiri recordings from the 1980s, and Neil Bell’s central Australian recordings. Work on these will be funded by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language but, as tapes keep turning up, we will need to find funds to keep digitising them.

Donations to PARADISEC (Inc) are tax-deductible in Australia.

From film to file: historical manuscripts released by PARADISEC

We are pleased to announce the release of a number of historical manuscripts in and about languages of the Pacific. We worked with the National Library of Australia to digitise microfilms and have now made them available as pdf files for download from our catalog. This work was supported by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language

Continue reading ‘From film to file: historical manuscripts released by PARADISEC’ »

Honiara language workshop, August 2019

The Solomon Islands Kulu Language Institute (KLI) organised a workshop in August this year that attracted 100 participants representing 44 languages of the Solomon Islands.

The venue was the leaf house at Saint Barnabas Anglican Cathedral Grounds, Honiara. The workshop was sponsored by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language, the Kulu Language Institute, the University of Melbourne, The Research Unit for Indigenous Language, and Islands Bible Ministries. Continue reading ‘Honiara language workshop, August 2019’ »

50 words of Australian languages project

The Research Unit for Indigenous Language is running a project in 2019/2020 to collect and present words in as many Australian Indigenous languages as possible. Please consider contributing to this project.

This project aims to provide resources for schools to teach at least fifty words in their local language.

We are asking for contributions of at least fifty words in as many Australian Indigenous languages as possible. The typed words need to be listed in a spreadsheet, with audio file recordings attached. Full instructions on capturing the details are on this website.

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Local wifi versions of paradisec?


Getting records back to the places they came from is a major motivation for what we do at PARADISEC. Repatriation of unique analog artefacts is an important model, and digital records should, in principle, be easier to move to any place. However, not every place has capacity for access to or storage of digital files. In the Pacific there are few reliable digital repositories and the cultural agencies I know have little capacity to store or disseminate digital files. Internet connections are usually expensive and so discourage download of large files.

Earlier I talked about using Itunes to get records back to Erakor, the village where I work in Vanuatu. The computers that held the Itunes installation eventually stopped working and were replaced, but the language files were not copied over to the new computers.

Continue reading ‘Local wifi versions of paradisec?’ »

Texts and more texts: corpora in the CoEDL

Corpus development is one of the goals of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language (see this web page for more details). We have run a number of workshops on corpus-related themes (e.g. the 2017 workshop that included a day on converting early sources).

In addition to creating useable materials for the source communities (which we have a strong commitment to supporting) we are archiving records that include primary media, transcripts and associated annotations. We aim to produce from this material a subset of accessible texts for a number of languages.
Here it is worth noting that we have come up with this terminology (thanks to Jane Simpson for the formulation) to distinguish the objects we have collected:
Assemblage – all material collected, working files, early sources, multiple versions and drafts
Collection – the archived material, a subset of the above, but curated with sufficient metadata to allow the user to know what all items are
Corpus – a crafted set of texts in the language that can be used for further analysis

Continue reading ‘Texts and more texts: corpora in the CoEDL’ »


I had a message from the ‘pop up archive‘ to say they are closing down and I should download my data. They were a website that allowed users to upload audio files that were then meant to be prepared for searching via automated recognition of features in the file.

Leaving aside the functionality of the site (I admit I did not get it to work with my files), I want to reiterate my frustration with websites that call themselves archives (ok, so in this case the title ‘pop up’ should have been a giveaway), only to disappear at the end of a funding cycle or the retirement of the researcher.

In part this frustration is also motivated by a recent project in which I compared languages that have little representation in the OLAC listing (see the earlier discussion of this here) of holdings in the world’s language archives but have had a grammar written recently. If a linguist has worked on a language in the past thirty or so years then it would be reasonable to expect that some primary records were produced, and that they should be in an archive. They may be in a repository that is not part of OLAC, in which case we can create a record to point to that collection. If they are not in any archive, the task is to ask the linguist if they need help to get the records into an archive. At PARADISEC we have been doing this, partly through our ‘Lost and Found’ survey, which has resulted in a number of collections of analog tapes being digitised and made available.
Continue reading ‘A WEBSITE IS NOT AN ARCHIVE!!!!!!’ »

Finding what is not there

A major part of PARADISEC’s effort goes in finding and digitising audio tapes that record performance in the many small languages of the world. As discussed in a number of posts on this blog it is becoming urgent that these tapes are digitised while they are still playable. Of the tapes described in this earlier post about tapes from Madang in PNG, some are already so badly damaged by mould that they can’t be played anymore.

In order to find more tapes we run a survey, that, unfortunately, has only ever had sixteen responses. We have managed to negotiate with these respondents to digitise five of their collections so far (see also the earlier blogpost ‘Where are the records?‘).

A more focussed way of finding out what recordings there are is by comparing what is published about a language with what primary records are listed as being in an archive. Assuming that someone doing fieldwork and writing a grammar of a language in the past fifty years must have made some recordings then the mission (should we choose to accept it) is to find those recordings.

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Pacific Manuscripts now in PARADISEC

After some discussion between PARADISEC and the Pacific Manuscripts Bureau (PAMBU) we now have access to linguistic records in the PAMBU microfilm collection, either for tagging in the PARADISEC catalog, or as digital versions of the microfilm in the PARADISEC collection.
Kylie Maloney at PAMBU kindly made available a list of items in PAMBU that have linguistic content (about 70 items). I sent this list to linguists interested in this field and got a priority list from them. PAMBU then entered into negotiations with their depositors to allow the microfilms to be digitised and produced as pdf files for distribution via PARADISEC’s repository. Continue reading ‘Pacific Manuscripts now in PARADISEC’ »

Results of the metadata survey

Keeping track of what is recorded in the course of fieldwork is critical, both for your own future work and for longterm archiving. Recordings of dynamic performance (audio or video) are easy to misplace or misidentify and very difficult to locate once you forget what a file was named and what you recorded on a particular day. We ran a survey about how people record their metadata from January 21st to April 25th, 2016 and had 142 responses (see also the earlier blog post here). There were two multiple choice questions each allowing selection of more than one checkbox and the entry of free text responses. I can send the full results of the survey on request. This information will help inform the development of new tools for metadata entry. The responses are summarised below.

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