As more and more of the world’s languages become endangered, their documentation provides key resources for linguists and communities. Documentary materials provide an empirical basis to inform our knowledge about what is possible in human language, a register of diverse cultural and discursive traditions, and a tangible record of community heritage, offering future generations access to the voices of their parents and grandparents. Yet these materials tend to be fragile and ephemeral – audio and video cassettes break down, notebooks mildew and fade, and even SD cards are prone to fire, flood, and changing technologies – as underscored by tragic events like the Museu Nacional fire of 2018, in which countless precious recordings and manuscripts were lost. More and more, documentary linguists look to digital archives as an essential resource in ensuring the preservation, conservation, and access of the outcomes of their work.
In this panel discussion we consider the benefits and challenges associated with archiving in language documentation, relating to issues of preservation, conservation, access, ownership, and use of materials. We bring together a set of scholars who are deeply involved in administering, contributing to, and drawing on language archives, with a focus on indigenous languages of Brazil and the Americas.
Turning first to preservation and conservation, we consider the steps that are needed to ensure the quality and longevity of resources. What are the contemporary best practices in curation and backup of materials? What makes an established language archive different from a website? How should researchers approach effective metadata production? What sorts of materials can or should be included in an archival deposit? How can archiving initiatives embrace the broadest possible set of resources, including contemporary and legacy collections, and the work of community members and a range of scholars alongside linguists?
Regarding access, we consider how archived materials may be made available, and to whom. How should materials be accessed by community members, who may have little experience with the internet, and by researchers and others? What are the ethical considerations associated with archiving, and how can researchers effectively convey to community members what the process involves for them? What sorts of factors should guide decisions about whether materials should be openly accessible to anyone who visits the archive, or restricted to community members and/or researchers only?
Finally, we explore ways in which language archives can inform ongoing work with indigenous languages, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. For linguists who are unable to do fieldwork, archival materials can offer important alternative sources of data and analysis, and new pathways for investigation. In some cases, the loss of fluent speakers means that archived legacy materials provide the only robust record of a language. Finally, archives can provide key resources for communities who wish to revitalize, maintain, or simply remember their linguistic and cultural heritage.
NOTE: Our panel discussion can take place in English or a mix of Spanish and Portuguese, depending on audience preferences. We will be happy to translate the title/abstract as needed.