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WANALA 2018 Collections Management Workshop

The Western and Northern Aboriginal Languages Alliance (WANALA) biannual forum was held in Batchelor on 17-18 October 2018. It brought together interested people from language centres around WA and the NT, as well as some other interested parties. One of the streams focused on collections management, which is always a challenge for language centres. There are many technical issues (which of the myriad tools available are appropriate for which context? How to weigh up usability, price, functionality, support required and rapid turnover?), funding issues (there is rarely funding available to support the time and human resources required for appropriate collection and archiving of precious language resources) and intellectual property issues (language centres are answerable to the communities they serve, while also managing compliance with national laws, negotiating the balance between open sharing and careful restriction). This workshop was an excellent opportunity for people to come together and share ideas about all these issues in a supportive, friendly environment.

The first morning involved presentations from language centres about the issues they face. Julie Walker shared the Wangka Maya experience, having been incorporated in 1987 but not having an archive when she started in 2013. This meant there was no system in place for managing the collection of books, recordings and files produced in languages of the Pilbara over many decades. A fire in the building led to smoke damage that destroyed over 5000 cassettes, which in turn affected relationships in the community. A significance assessment and conservation assessment led to recommendations for disaster planning, and they outsourced a South Australian company to digitise their collection. She noted that specialist support is very hard to find in remote contexts, making it incredibly expensive to build and support appropriate infrastructure, and long distances between communities means that workshops need to be carefully planned – laptops running out of power hundreds of kilometres away is a problem not faced in our major cities. The language centre faces many requests from community members to access materials, so detailed metadata is required, which also linked to physical or digital locations – knowing something exists is not the same as being able to show it to someone.

David Nathan from the Groote Eylandt Language Centre reported on the development of a database that responds to the need for a repository for the huge amount of materials produced over many years which had never been systematically collected or catalogued. He noted that the most important knowledge about the materials is not in the system or metadata but in the community itself. The Ajamurnda database is designed to bring together the two components – digital resources and the local knowledge about them. He noted the importance of a collections policy to assist with the selection and curation of files, the use of software to automate some of the processes, and the benefit of using unique file IDs in managing long file names. They developed a range of access protocols that allow people to feel safe about looking at things and about what other people are looking at, coming up with 7 categories which are currently being tested, with a view to creating a living map of knowledge circulation.

Daryn McKenny from Miromaa Aboriginal Language & Technology Centre reported on how they’re managing both the physical and digital collections they’ve developed over many years, including some very rare historical documents about the languages of the Newcastle area. He described the different processes used for capturing and storing metadata, as well as various means of mirroring and backing up. He showed the Fujitsu Scan Snap, a handheld scanner with a range of software that makes digitisation look very simple. He also identified some of the challenges of keeping a physical collection safe, and recommended some useful software and tips that not-for-profit agencies can benefit from.

Presenting online, Mari Rhydwen from Muurrbay Language Centre shared a different perspective, as they don’t create much new material but need to keep safe existing material. They use Dropbox to store files, but acknowledge that this is not ideal. There were also concerns about security and access, for example if computers are damaged or stolen, or if someone with a large collection passes away. Looking to the future, if the language centre did not exist, what would happen to all these materials?

Siobhan Casson from the Kimberley Language Regional Centre in Halls Creek showed images of their archive room in the centre of their building, and how their material has been carefully catalogued over the years, earning high praise for their collection in a Significance Assessment in 2008. The difficulties have been in maintaining this high standard, with turnover of outside staff, lack of committed funding to this aspect of the centre, and the lack of links between the digitised materials and the database. The challenge of working in a language context with no embedded literate culture means some materials like grammars and dictionaries are not the most appropriate for supporting intergenerational language transmission, yet funding opportunities tend to prioritise text-based resources rather than teaching on country programs. She proposed an information management system that could incorporate the digital archive as part of a larger infrastructure, and they are looking for how this might be done effectively.

After hearing from the language centres, the next sessions focused on institutional archives and how they can support the work of language centres. Cathy Bow from Charles Darwin University presented on the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages, a digital collection of endangered literature in languages of the Northern Territory. A collaborative partnership funded by the Australian Research Council, the archive contains around 5000 items in 50 languages. The collection is stored on the university’s library repository, in PDF and text form for presentation, and TIFF formats for preservation, available through a visual website that requires little text or technical literacy to navigate. She described the way tensions between copyright and Indigenous cultural and intellectual property are being managed, through licenses, permission forms and take-down notices, while using a Creative Commons license to inform users of the conditions under which the materials are shared.

Karen Manton from the CALL Collection at Batchelor Institute acknowledged the importance of the people whose work form the basis of their national collection, and how seriously they take the responsibility of caring for these materials. They have developed an extensive database and have been digitising their collection, with first stage of their website now available. With help from Terri Janke, they developed a range of end user licenses and protocols which inform and protect both the creators and users of the collection.

Amanda Harris from PARADISEC described nearly 50 Tb of files from 99 countries and over 1000 languages, which has now spread well beyond the Pacific region. Their custom-built database promotes discoverability, and where possible embeds metadata directly into files. She discussed some of their strategies of enriching metadata, by inviting language experts and community members to add value to the collections, as well as activities to promote the collection such as a Virtual Reality event at Canberra Museum in 2017. Their collection includes materials form Australian languages and they are pursuing partnerships with language centres to support local archiving activities.

In the panel discussion time, Steven Bird from CDU shared a 2010 checklist for language archives which focused on the key issues of audience, access, preservation, sustainability, but noted that issues of relevance to Indigenous Australia should also be included, such as cultural protocols. It was noted that the intertwining of technology and human resources is often under-estimated – a language centre may get funding to buy or build software, but the cost of a staff member to research, install, maintain and train others in using this is not always factored in by funding bodies. There was a clear indication that language centres wanted to manage their own collections, not relying on external experts who leave without building capacity for ongoing local sustainability. It was noted that collections and archives are not exactly the same, with daily management of materials often demanding more immediate attention than the safe storage and backup of archival materials. David Nathan urged caution about use of the word ‘archive’ to mean all sorts of other things – collection, library, website, backup, server – which don’t necessarily conform to the requirements of an actual archive. Steven Bird noted that technology is only one part of the process of information management, and noted that the federal government’s commitment to technological solutions, as articulated at the National Indigenous Languages Convention on the Gold Coast earlier this year, needs to be challenged. The current forum is an opportunity to articulate what is required and how the government can support the vital work of language centres, with the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019 an ideal opportunity to become more visible and more vocal in our efforts.

In the workshops after lunch, small groups worked on specific topics, such as Access, Planning, People and Skills. The planning group focused on knowing where to start, such as with an audit of what materials there are and in what forms, which can then be used as the basis for a database, whether a simple spreadsheet or a more complex system. A suggestion that the government could provide storage for off-site backup for language centre materials was met with caution from those who don’t trust the government to do this, although some agreed that AIATSIS would be a suitable repository. Prioritisation of work is also crucial, thinking internally, regionally, and nationally, with a view to sharing knowledge and avoiding duplication of effort. Both the audit and prioritisation processes require funding and time and people, which are all in short supply in language centres. There may be some crowdsourcing or volunteer options, though these may require some initial setup. First Languages Australia could support the process by providing case studies, guidelines and factsheets, if people are willing to share what they have. There was some concern about language becoming a product that can be packaged, so the need for more innovative ways to think about collections and data as something other than artefacts to be managed, and to communicate the value of our languages (in all their forms) for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

The final session of the day involved discussion of tools. Susan Locke from First Nations Media Australia (formerly IRCA) described their multifaceted approach to developing resources and standards, and their coordinated approach to a national community collections plan. They are working on an affordable digital asset management system (DAMS) for Indigenous media organisations which would manage preservation files for archiving, managing ‘mezzanine’ files for production house purposes, managing community viewing and listening, capturing cultural information, and controlling access according to cultural protocols. This work will begin in 2019 but requires additional funding.

Anja Tait from Northern Territory Library asked us to reconsider ‘what is a library’ as she described their 32 remote library services, plus providing wifi to 44 communities. She described some legacy projects – a language app, bilingual board books – as well as an innovative rethinking of how to classify library materials in a community environment. They’re currently in the process of reconfiguring the Community Stories service, which enables local communities to store and share photos, videos, texts, etc. under local authority. The library is considering how best to serve the local and regional needs of communities, and Anja ended with a statement on the importance of trust.

Daryn McKenny shared about extensions to the popular Miromaa software, which will include the capacity to manage collections for language centres. The update will allow users to manage multiple databases through a single interface, and each database can have its own security or cultural protocols attached. It will also be customisable, so users can create their own fields and tags, and allows storage of digital artefacts within the system, directly linked to the metadata.

On Thursday, continuing talk of tools, Nick Thieberger from the University of Melbourne shared 3 emerging projects happening through CoEDL. The first is a multi-platform extension of SIL’s SayMore program to assist users to enter catalogue information when creating collections, allowing simple means to view and add information about files, people, places, etc. The second is a collections database for small agencies, allowing language centres and others to create rich metadata to keep track of their collections. The third is based on the Digital Daisy Bates project, as a map interface to collections, where a user can click on a map location to see a text, and the text and images scroll together. They have funding for each of these projects and are looking to partner with language centres to explore them further.

The discussion part of the workshop covered many different areas, from a warning about talking only about ‘tools’ but rather thinking in terms of ‘concepts’, to a call for Miromaa to become the tool that all language centres use. Miromaa is already used widely, but is not sufficiently funded to meet the needs of all its users, with Daryn providing the majority of support directly. There is a sense of urgency about these issues, with people wanting more opportunities to workshop and discuss options, even before the next Puliima conference in August next year. First Languages Australia has a project researching the tools used by language centres, which can inform ongoing work in this space. It was decided that an important outcome of this workshop would be a statement from WANALA calling on the government to acknowledge the importance of Indigenous languages and to support them through adequate funding and legislation. A team is currently working on this statement.

The remainder of the day involved presentations from the other workshops happening over the forum, including Message Sticks, language in Art, Storytelling, and the use of drones to document country – fantastic footage from nearby Litchfield National Park. All the attendees left excited by the inspiring workshop, and looking forward to the next steps.

ASA/ITIC conference 2017

Reflecting on a busy and challenging week in Melbourne at the Australian Society of Archivists conference, and processing some of the learnings and connections made. This was my first archiving conference, and I realised how much I don’t know about this field. But I was interested in the way the conference positioned itself as a challenge to its own field. The conference description stated:

The program will explore questions on the diversity of our collections, our profession and our audiences, as well as exploring the impact and potential of information technologies in indigenous communities and on traditional knowledge.

Who are collections for? Who do they represent? Who should hold them, manage access and use, and communicate content? We know that collections in the GLAMR (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums and Records) sectors contain representations of many different identities – cultural, ethnic, religious, political and sexual amongst many others – at points in time and over time. How should these myriad worlds be reflected to the wider community? What systemic changes are required to ensure new professionals entering the sector are a more diverse, broadly representative group than those who have come before?

The Melbourne conference seeks to examine the commonalities and differences between sectors, collections and communities, as well as the many different worlds represented within them. The concept of Diverse Worlds – inclusive of the non-binary, different and divergent – also challenges notions of cohesion and a singular professional identity. It recognises that our community is not fully representative, and the collections for which we are responsible are not discoverable, accessible or understandable to many. We need to ask how we can go beyond mere consultation and engagement, and question whether supporting true diversity involves relinquishing authority, custodianship and control.

The two keynote speakers for the ASA both distanced themselves from the archival profession, sharing frustrations with the lack of transformative power in the field as it currently stands. Verne Harris from the Nelson Mandela Foundation spoke about the power of transformational dialogue and its reliance on archives, giving examples from the South African experience, where “the struggle relies on the archive” such as in land restitution claims, outcomes of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, state corruption, and the growth of inequality. He addressed the rhetoric of ‘hope’ but instead said that he has faith sustained by stories found in archive.

The closing keynote speaker, Jarrett Drake, in solidarity with his compatriots’ protests against racial injustice, did his whole address on one knee. He spoke of his disillusionment with the profession of archiving, and how the claims of diversity within the Society of American Archivists are ‘dangerous, delusional and disingenuous.’ I’m guessing it’s not the first time he has spoken about the need to dismantle white supremacy to a room full of mostly white archivists and researchers. My hope is that his PhD research will lead to something that will shake up the profession in the same way that Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” shook up education in its day.

The plenary on the second morning focused on Evaluating the impact of Indigenous Collections: Going way beyond metrics project in NZ. 3 of the speakers focused on a recent on the impact of digitised material in Te Reo Maori archival collections, where much consultation with Maori community members led to an online survey of users, which revealed some of the practices of the users of these archival materials, and one of the speakers referred to “the growing democratisation of what was once rare knowledge.” It was good to hear about the ‘other end’ of the archiving process, how the materials that have been archived are used and what impact the process of archiving can have. It’s difficult to measure, and there are no standards for how to do it for Indigenous materials. Perhaps one outcome of this session is more discussion on what would be involved in identifying such standards?

I had the opportunity to present the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages at the session on ‘Web and Mobile Evaluation‘, where a panel of experts in usability/UX (User Experience), accessibility issues, and archives and technology issues gave feedback. One of the panel couldn’t access our site at all (an audience member suggested it was blocked at the workplace rather than a technical issue for our website, which has been working fine), but his feedback on the other sites motivated me to address issues of accessibility in our site. The UX expert only looked at the home page and didn’t get to the Archive at all – her comment was that “maybe because I’m a millennial, I ignore anything on the left or right of the page” so she missed the “click here to enter the archive” button. This means we should change where the URLs point to, so others don’t have the same experience and miss all the fun of exploring the archive itself.It was also recommended that the map instructions remain visible while users are navigating the map (currently they disappear and the selected language or community fills that space). Happily the third panel member was very positive about our site, having worked in remote NT schools and recognising the value of our project.

The third day (ITIC) focused on the legacy of the late Dr Joe Gumbula, a senior Yolŋu songman who was also involved in important research to enhance knowledge of Indigenous archives and collections in Australia and internationally. Members of his family ‘smoked’ the participants in the grounds of Melbourne University, before a personal and moving keynote by Professor Aaron Corn about his mentor, father and colleague. This was accompanied by yiḏaki and singing by his brother and other Yolŋu musicians. After the later lecture, several people spoke warmly about the man and his legacy.

As usual at conferences, it’s a great opportunity to network with others working in the same area, and I made some good connections and came back with lots of business cards and notes of things, references or people to follow up.


VALA 2016

Jayshree Mamtora, the Research Services Coordinator from Charles Darwin University Library shares her experience presenting about the Living Archive project at a national library conference last month.

 VALA 2016 Conference

In February, I had the opportunity to attend the VALA 2016 Conference and present a paper, Preserving the living archive of Indigenous material, jointly written with Neil Godfrey, CDU Library’s Digital Collections Coordinator, and Cathy Bow, LAAL Project Manager. The VALA Conference is a major Australian library conference held biennially at the Melbourne Convention Centre, and  this year attracted 1300 delegates.

Our paper primarily focussed on the contribution of the CDU Library to the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages project. The Library was responsible for setting up a digitisation program to preserve the language materials, establishing, hosting and maintaining the digital repository, and developing a web application to make it more easily accessible. As such, the Library played a key role in facilitating both Indigenous community engagement and international linguistic research with these Indigenous language materials.

My presentation generated a number of interesting questions at the end – about the range and types of materials in the collection, how the material was collected, and the future of the archive. The presentation also generated some very positive tweets:


The tweeter who said “what a jewel this archive is” was actually brought to tears by the presentation. Kris Wehipeihana, the President of LIANZA (Library and Information of New Zealand Aotearoa), was very moved by the work that had been done in the setting up of the Archive, from her experience with Maori language and culture.

The project serves as a rich case study demonstrating how academic libraries can work with researchers to support the archiving of cultural heritage and will prove useful to others planning similar projects. Our conference paper is available (open access) through CDU Library’s eSpace repository.


Puliima 2015

Project manager Cathy Bow reports on a great conference in Melbourne this month.Puliima 2015 banner

The fifth biennial Puliima National Indigenous Language & Technology Forum was held in Melbourne last week. This is an amazing opportunity to bring together interested practitioners from around the country to share ideas and tools, projects and encouragement.  The forum has a very relaxed feel, with opportunities to ‘show and tell’ about interesting projects and make connections with people across this close-knit but welcoming community. There were over 230 people attending from around Australia and some visitors from overseas.

The plenary sessions took us around the world – from documenting important musical traditions on the Tiwi Islands, to New Mexico USA, where the Santa Fe Indian School is developing programs for students to learn their languages under Indigenous authority, to New Zealand where an Indigenous model of curriculum has been developed for Māori students. There were other opportunities to hear about a range of apps and programs being produced in different language centres and community organisations all around Australia, as well as what’s happening at state and national libraries, and within Universities. 

I had the privilege of being involved in two presentations during the forum. The first involved a panel discussion entitled An open and shut case? Protecting rights and promoting access to Indigenous language materials – I’ll post about that next week. The other was presented in conjunction with Michael Roseth from italk library demonstrating their suite of resources in a number of Indigenous languages and how you can add your own languaitalkge to these high quality videos and stories about contemporary issues. We also showed how you can use the italk library iPad app with books from the Living Archive to create talking books – it’s super easy to add audio and do translation on the fly. Thanks to Millika from Wurrumiyanga who added some Tiwi audio to a book as a demonstration.


It was also lovely to see the fantastic new resources published by First Languages Australia – particularly the Angkety map Digital resource report (which features the Living Archive on page 18) and Warra: Building teams, building resources (we’re on p77 of that one). Plus they also launched the excellent Gambay: Australia’s first languages map which includes lots of information behind the scenes, and can be edited by users. Good to see high quality and informative publications that will really help people working in this field.

I was especially pleased to see a a number of attendees at the forum from the Northern Territory, including people from Wadeye, Tennant Creek, Ngukurr, Harts Range, Bathurst Island, Maningrida and Groote Eylandt, as well as Darwin, Batchelor and Alice Springs. In many of these locations languages are still being spoken, so the issues are different from some other places where there are only documents and recordings left.  Every situation is quite different, so it was encouraging to see people recognise that they were not the only ones facing some of these challenges, and ideas and encouragement could be shared with people from different perspectives.

AGL_shotThe second ‘Australia’s Got Language‘ competition was held on the Wednesday evening, and showcased some incredible talent, as different performers sang in their traditional languages, or performed comedy or told stories.

Thanks to Daryn and the Puliima team for making everything run so smoothly, and to the sponsors for supporting such an important event. Check out their Facebook page for photos and more information.


ICLDC4_logoThanks to the Charles Darwin University Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Exceptional Performance in Research, I was fortunate to be able to attend the 4th International Conference on Language Documentation and conservation at the University of Hawai’i Mānoa. 

This was a fantastic opportunity to hear from a wide range of people working in the endangered languages field, with a focus on enriching theory, practice and application. This meant that most presentations had real-world applications, particularly reporting on specific projects or tools, sharing ideas about what works and doesn’t in specific contexts. There were a few sessions directly relating to archiving endangered language materials, and lots of discussion about issues that concern our project, such as ownership and copyright.

I made some good connections with other practitioners, and picked up some nuggets that will help our project. For example my conversation with an SIL representative gave me some useful ideas about how to request changes to the ISO 639-3 codes for Yolngu languages. Hearing from MPI about their process of shifting The Language Archive to a new open source repository solution is helpful to our library staff who are considering future changes along these lines. Another colleague had suggestions about displaying special characters in certain online contexts. I was also challenged to think about the pedagogical affordances of our archive, ie how  accessible and useful the materials are for people learning Indigenous NT languages.

It was good to see so many Indigenous people in attendance, many First Nations people from Canada and the US (particularly Hawai’i and Alaska), many of whom are doing really interesting things with language revitalisation. And the Australian contingent was strong, with an entire morning session dedicated to “Language Pedagogy and Practice in Indigenous Australia” run by the team from the Research Unit for Indigenous Language, and a really challenging presentation about issues in Australian language revitalisation from John Hobson of the University of Sydney.

I was able to demonstrate the Living Archive site at an e-poster session, among a dozen other demonstrations. Here I was able to share with interested people about the work we’re doing, and promote the project to the wider language documentation community. I had a few queries about sharing our open-source infrastructure with other communities, and lots of brochures were distributed.

I got into some ‘live-tweeting’ with a few other tweeters, and even participated in a ‘tweet-up‘ meeting face-to-face with tweeters sharing the hashtag #ICLDC4. One even documented our conference tweeting at https://storify.com/superlinguo/icldc4.

Besides Hawai’i being a fantastic location for a conference, the event itself was incredibly well-organised and worthwhile. I look forward to building on some of the connections I made and developing some ideas to benefit the project.


Learning Indigenous languages — can universities help?


In the beautiful Birabahn building at the University of Newcastle, around 40 people gathered to discuss how Universities can help in the learning of Indigenous languages. Following a warm welcome to Awabukal country, and an overview and a few presentations about the current situation, the challenges and opportunities, a series of speed presentations reported on courses currently available through Australian universities. These include

Michael Christie also spoke of the possibility of producing small online courses (‘mini-MOOCs’) under the authority of language owners, using materials already available through the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages. Other sessions focused on language programs being developed and delivered in language centres, such as the Muurrbay Aboriginal Language & Culture Cooperative, and collaboration between a local language community and the University of Western Sydney College

There was some discussion of qualifications and training for people wanting to teach their languages, such as the University of Sydney’s Masters of Indigenous Language Education, and the development of a new Bachelor of Education (Aboriginal) which will require students to learn an Indigenous language. There was also discussion about ways of linking University studies to the needs of communities, such as ‘translating’ complex linguistic explanations into simple language, and opportunities for students and others to engage with language materials, such as through the State Library of NSW or the Living Archive project. First Languages Australia are developing a framework for teaching and learning Aboriginal languages, which is open for consultation.

Some of the issues raised during the day included

  • the need for training for elders to teach their languages and share their knowledge
  • concerns about low rates of pay for language teachers
  • the lack of recognition of the knowledge of the elders in university courses
  • the need for pathways to allow students to study a language from primary to tertiary level
  • need to increase opportunity and access to existing courses (eg through cross-institutional credit)
  • need to network more with people involved in teaching Indigenous languages
  • bureaucratic barriers such as funding, red tape issues at institutional level

Some of the principles that emerged from the day’s discussion were that all Indigenous language courses need to

  • be community-led
  • develop useful outputs
  • include skills transfer
  • promote Aboriginal cultural values

The discussion continues about the role of academic linguists and community linguists in meeting the needs and overcoming the barriers.