When you think of archives, the image of a shelf full of books and papers might immediately spring to mind. But how do you store languages and music? Sure, you can write things down, but you may lose meaning.
“A lot of these memory institutions have been optimised for writing technology, and they don’t actually necessarily have a very good fit with the sort of technology needed for audio-visual recordings and other sorts of knowledge,” says Linda Barwick, a professor emeritus at the University of Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music.
Barwick has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for “significant service to preservation and digitisation of cultural heritage recordings”.
She helped set up the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC), which stores audio and video recordings from a variety of different language groups, mostly focussed on the Pacific region.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be a cog in many, many bigger wheels,” says Barwick.
“I don’t feel like it’s work that I’ve done, out of my own individual perspective – it’s been something that’s been co-created with a lot of other people.”
Barwick has been studying and recording music from a variety of different communities – particularly in Australia, Italy and the Philippines – for much of her career.
“A big movement in Australian cultural institutions is the digitisation and indexing of a lot of these materials, so they’re able to be shared more widely. People are able to find things on the web that might be useful in contemporary efforts to revitalise songs.”
Indexing is particularly key, according to Barwick – which is why the archive Trove’s impending funding cut is so concerning.
“Trove might seem like an added extra – you might say the core businesses of the National Library is to maintain their collection of books,” says Barwick, whose work has contributed to Trove.
“But actually, the collection of books is only relevant as it is because of that system for accessing and disseminating that information.”
She has long had a sense of the importance of music in one’s native language: beginning by listening to the singing of her Welsh-speaking grandfather.
But it was during her PhD at Flinders University in the early 19080s that it started to turn into a career.
“I got to know quite a few musicians through there, including some Pitjantjatjara people who came down to do singing lessons. I learned Pitjantjatjara language in order to be able to appreciate what’s going on. And then one thing led to another, and people invited me to come and record music in different locations.”
She’s also helped locate and connect archived music and language recordings with the groups that made them.
“There’s a lot of recordings in the audio-visual archives that, certainly at the time I started working, people might not have been aware that they were recordings of their grandfathers, or grandmothers.”
While it’s become increasingly easy for anyone to find, and identify, these recordings, it’s also become increasingly difficult to fund it. Barwick says Trove’s funding uncertainty is an example of this.
“You’re constantly having to say, well, this is actually important for the quality of life – and for making life worth living.”
Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.
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