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65th IFLA Council and General


Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999

Collecting and preserving the French oral heritage : the role of a national library

Joëlle Garcia
Secretary, IFLA Section on Audiovisual and Multimedia
« Bibliothèque nationale de France», Audiovisual Department


In French culture, shaped by a state and centralizing civilization based on written matters, orality has been hushed up for a long time. When people's arts and traditions were integrated into studies on folklore then into an ethnology of France, oral heritage became acknowledged as a fully-recognized matter to study. The representations of France are now conceived as plural. Local areas are places where you can collect and build knowledge, history and traditions ; so they are now receptacles for heritage. Stammering in the 18th century, the study on orality became a scientific branch of learning ; later on, with the possibility of capturing human voice with sound recordings, sound materials joined written ones in libraries. Specialized sound archives were created at first by institutions but now they are organized, sometimes within a library, though much more by associations which try to promote traditions and oral history of their regions. In this paper, we will study the role of oral materials in specialized, public and national libraries and archives which collect and preserve a national oral heritage.


1. The bodies in charge of collecting, preserving and promoting the french oral traditions

1.1. The institutionnal processes

At the end of the 30's, the institutionnal processes were born. Creating a museum of French folklore was an idea that existed since the end of the 19th century. A study of foreign people's ethnology developed after the Dakar-Djibouti mission between 1931 and 1933. As for French ethnology, the start was the first international congress on folklore , held in Paris in 1937. The « Musée des Arts et Traditions populaires » (folk arts and traditions museum) was created in 1937 from the French collections of the « Musée du Trocadéro » (Trocadéro ethnographic museum ) ; the foreign collections of this museum were given to the « Musée de l'Homme » (Museum of Mankind). The birth of that museum expresses the acknowledgement and the institutionalization of the ethnology of France. A chair of folklore was created in 1942 in the « Ecole du Louvre » (French high school of Arts) ; a research laboratory has been associated to the museum since 1945 and became the « Centre d'Ethnology française » (French Ethnolgy Center) in 1966, by an agreement with the « C.N.R.S. » (« Centre national pour la Recherche scientifique - French National Center for Scientific Research). The museum has a sound archive which preserves unpublished sound materials : interviews, collected ethnographical informations, oral literature (tales and relations), vocal and instrumental musics, and also discographic collections, broadcasts, and the collections of a Museum of Song.

Studying oral materials is now a fully-recognized science in linguistiscs and ethnology, and much more recently, in oral history. Research centers develop in universities or high schools (« Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes », « Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences sociales »), as, for instance, the « Centre de Recherches méditerranéennes sur les Ethnotextes, l'Histoire orale et les Parlers régionaux » (C.R.E.H.O.P. - Mediterranean Reserch Center on Ethnotexts, Oral History and Regional Dialects) related to the Université de Provence. In the musical and sociolinguistical fields, the « C.N.R.S. » plays an important role with its research units and linguistic or ethnological programmes. For instance, the « C.N.R.S. », in a continuation of the making of the Linguistic Atlas of France published between 1902 and 1910, created a coordonated research group on linguistic atlases and regional cultures and dialects in France (called G.R.E.C.O.) in 1977. Since then, atlases have been published, gathering primary materials in order to make an inventory of a heritage by collecting disappearing or seriously under threat dialects. The researchers are appealling to the people's practice but also memories to apprehend the historical depth of the language. The programme called Ethnotextes proceeds from the « G.R.E.C.O. » activities. Series of books present studies on the oral language spatialized, regarded with its internal coherence, within the communication context and the cultural significance.

Within the Ministry of Culture, the « Mission du Patrimoine ethnologique » (Mission on Ethnologic Heritage) was set up in 1980. Right from the start, the « Mission du Patrimoine ethnologique » and the « Conseil du Patrimoine ethnologique » decided to group their activities under four headings: research, training, publishing and making available research findings. Recently the Mission has increasingly moved into new fields such as the study of urban problems, contact and cooperation with the new eastern Europe, and it has taken a special interest in endangered communities such as rural areas threatened by the collapse of small scale agriculture. The Mission now has a central role in bringing together work already done and in defining new areas of study where anthropology might be relevant for understanding the rapid and bewildering changes which our multicultural society is undergoing. Every year the Mission supports research teams, it organizes academic or work exchanges. Among the books it has published are volumes on french bourgeois culture, technical know-how, slaughterhouses, the inhabitants of Paris' 14th arrondissement, and the match of football. The journal « Terrain » covers every aspect of contemporary french society from an anthropological point of view.

France has made promotion of plurilingualism one of its cultural main direction, that is to say acknowledgment of the linguistic variety and openmindness to the others showing respect for one's langage and culture. A « Délégation générale à la Langue Française » (General Delegation for the French Langage) was created to analyse the policies in aid of the regional language and make propositions to develop them. It especially concludes that the place of the regional language should illustrate and support the choices of the country : Europe, decentralization, French-Speaking , multilingualism. In 1999, will be signed the european charter for regional and minority languages.

If the great interest of oral traditions for linguistics or ethnology has been early understood, it's only recently that the oral statements have taken an historic value. Since the 80's, archives, that had received sound materials since 1960's, has begun to develop sound archives using oral statements with an historical aim.

1.2. The strength of the voluntary sector

Concurrently with these institutionnal processes, private initiatives leaded to associations ; around 1975 a denser and denser network of museums has been created, giving emphasis to the regional cultural identities and showing the new appropriation of a cultural heritage that the second industrial revolution had put far and far away in the past. The associations, that aim to keep the memory of a place, of a language, of a profession, of a skill or of an everyday object have also collected sound materials.

A federation called « Fédération des Associations de Musiques et Danses Traditionnelles » (F.A.M.D.T. - Federation of Associations of Traditionnal Music and Dance) was born in 1985 from the gathering of the associations that were participating to a consultative committee on traditional musics created by the Direction of Music and Dance of the Ministry of Culture. It aims to « promote, coordinate and spread researches, creations, expressions, professional training and people's education, in the field of traditionnal musics and dances ». In November 1989, it organised a national general meeting which gathered three hundred participants and gave the opportunity to structure the work that is being done nowadays. It brings together researchers within a network and organize research- workshops on ethnomusicology ; it is active on starting and continuing training ; it works for the standardization of descriptions of archives and documents and publishes guidelines for documentation centers. It also publishes books on various subjects (Collecting bagpipes Man, animals and music, and so on). It also says it participates to a moving heritage, of which we are both user and producer. The F.A.M.D.T. wants to cover, in a balanced way, the two sides of the traditional musics : one, that we could call localist, telling us that these musics belong to a specific cultural tradition and develop within a cultural background, the other, that we could name universalist, insisting on the plasticity of these musics going beyond their context of birth.

The F.A.M.D.T. brings together big regional associations like « Dastum » (Bretagne), « Métive » (Poitou-Charente), the « Conservatoire occitan » (Toulouse), etc.

The « Conservatoire occitan », created in 1970, is a place where you can find ressources about oral traditions, and especially about music, dance and traditionnal song. It puts at people's disposal a library, a photographic library, a sound and also audiovisual archive, with published and unpublished materials. It is working to raise its collections by its own collecting actions but sometimes receives materials collected by others researchers as well.

The associative network called « Métive » has covered the Poitou-Charentes area since 1972. It is composed by a municipal museum, a hall, sound and audiovisual studios, exhibition, training and congress rooms, and a center of research and documentaion on Orality called « Maison des cultures » (House of cultures). It has done collecting campaign about language, music and dance, songs and tales, skills, etc. This centre preserves sound and audiovisual materials of the Poitou-Charentes and Vendée areas but also from others regions in France (Loire-Atlantique, Anjou, Mayenne, Bretagne) and others countries (Canada, Italy, North Africa). This association also has the project of creating a web site.

The association called Dastum, created in 1972 and developped by a network of volunteers, local teams and others associations, gave itself the mission to collect, spread and emphazise the ethnological heritage of Bretagne, with a particular attention to the oral traditions and traditional musics. Its searches cover the « historical » Bretagne, that is to say including the Loire-Atlantique departement as well as the Breton communities disseminated in France outside this area. The materials collected par individuals or associations are opened to the public in a central library. The published sound materials are listed and sometimes you can find a publication received by gift from a private person. A project of digitilization for access « Musée de l'Homme » and the sound archive of the « Musée des Arts et Traditions populaires ».

2. The role of a french national library in collecting, preserving and promoting the oral traditions : the audiovisual department

2.1. A favourable past

The origins of the Sound Archives and Audiovisual department od the « Bibliothèque nationale de France » go back to 1911 and the creation of the Archives de la Parole, the first sound library to be established in France. Thanks to the latest sound recording and restitution techniques, Ferdinand Brunot was able to fulfill one of mankind's dreams by"making human speech eternal". The manufacturer Emile Pathé was associated to the foundation. The aim of the institution is to constitute a sound heritage for linguistic study and research by collecting statements, folk tales, traditionnal music, folklore, etc. On the roads and paths in remote areas, the Ferdinand Brunot's collecting actions in the Ardennes in 1912, in the Berry and Limousin in 1913 brought sound materials back to his institution. The notion of sound recordings of patrimonial value was materialized with Brunot who carried out the first experiments in language instruction using sound recording techniques, the first ethnographic recordings in the field, the first recordings of famous voices (Cécile Sorel, Sarah Bernhardt, Apollinaire, Captain Dreyfus, amongothers).

In 1925, the law extended the legal deposit to sound material but without success. In 1927, the Archives de la Parole became the Musée de la Parole et du Geste, which was extended to include recorded images. It is joined with the Phonetics Institute. At the same time, electric recording gave a boost to the collecting work.

In 1932, Mr Roger Dévigne was appointed Director of the Musée de la Parole, in agreement with the Director of the Institute of Phonetics. It was his constant preoccupation to enlarge his sound atlas by all possible means (missions, stuido recordings, exchanges). As limited funds prevent distant expeditions, it was necessary to record musicians and singers who happened to be in Paris. He succeeded in creating a sound laboratory and a recording studio supplied with portable electric apparatus. With this studio it became possible to reproduce the records issued by the Musée de la Parole and above all to increase the collections of French folklore recorded on acetate discs. The collection of needle-cut records also includes also dances from the Auvergne, songs from the Bretagne, oral traditions from the Lorraine, from the Pays Basque, etc. In addition to records made in the studio, there are also duplicated records brought by expeditions or reproduced from records lent to the Museum.

2.2. Unpublished and published sound materials

The number of sound recordings published was increasing and the « Phonothèque Nationale » (national sound library) was set up on 8 April 1938 for the legal deposit of sound recordings (records,cassettes and tapes) and to collect all sound recordings of whatever nature, keeping on the collecting policy of the Musée de la Parole. The director Dévigne, in order to « build up by means of records a sound atlas of the accents, dialects, folklore and old sounds of France », organized new expeditions to the French provinces. In 1939, he made recordings in the Hautes-Alpes and in the Nice area. From 1941 to 1943, interesting documents were brought back from Languedoc, Rouergue, Bigorre, Couserans and Vallespir and, in 1946, Normandy and the marshlands of Vendée (series of festal songs sung at marriages, wakes at daily work).

So that in France, the following areas are represented in the collections of this period : Hautes Alpes, Ardennes, Ariège, Auvergne, Berry, Bretagne, Charente, Corse, Flandre, Foix, Gascogne, Ile-de-France, Limousin, Lorraine, Normandie, Orléanais, Périgord, Picardie, Poitou, Provence, Hautes et Basses Pyrénées, Rouergue, Roussillon, Vallespir, Vendée. These collections were increased later : for instance Corsican collections from the Mr Quilici donation.

We also have to mentionned the collects made by Geneviève Massignon, given to the institution in 1946 and 1961. The materials (magnetics tapes, photographs, manuscripts, question papers, etc.) are about Canada and France. In France, she collected in the West, between the Loire and the Gironde, that had to be used to form a linguistic and ethnological atlas of the West ; she also collected folk tales and songs in this area and in the Bretagne and Corsica.

As for unpublished original records, the Phonothèque nationale was helping the researchers by lending tapes and recorders to them. In return, the researcher gave the records that were duplicated and put on safety tapes. When he gave the tapes the researcher authorized or not the librarians a public access to the materials. If he wanted to delay the access to work on the collected material, the most frequent case, he gave a date from when the public would be able to have access. This way, a part of the national heritage was preserved. Therefore, in 1976 an agreement with the C.N.R.S. (Linguisctics and Musicology Department) was signed, that allows the researchers on linguistics and musicology to give their tapes to these archives. These collected materials, related to ethonography, ethnomusicology and linguistics, are made from interviews and songs. France is rather well represented with the Ain, the Aisne, the Bas-Rhin, the Calvados, the Côtes d'Armor, the Creuse, the Deux-Sèvres, the Essonne, the Eure, the Eure-et-Loir, the Finistère, the Gard, the Haute-Garonne, the Hautes-Alpes, the Haut-Rhin, the Haute-Vienne, the Hauts-de-Seine, the Hérault, the Indre-et-Loire, the Isère, the Lot-et-Garonne, the Manche, the Mayenne, the Moselle, the Nord, the Oise, the Orne, the Rhône, the Sarthe, the Seine, the Seine Maritime, the Seine-Saint-Denis, the Somme, the Tarn-et-Garonne, the Val-de-Marne, the Val-d'Oise, the Vienne and the Vendée.

And that is how was built a collection of oral tradition, used by researchers nowadays. But, with these unpublished materials, you can also find a great collection of published discs on oral traditions, showing the use and re-creation of traditions. Legal deposit allows the preservation of the work made from the traditions in the fields of folklore and ethnology. You can find such labels as Ocora, Unesco (Baerenreiter-musicaphon, Philips, Auvidis), Musée de l'Homme, Musiques du monde, BAM ou Chant du monde.

In 1977, it was incorporated into the Bibliothèque nationale and became its Sound Archives and Audiovisual department. Since 1975,this department has been the legal depositary for video recordings and multimedia productions. With the birth of the « Bibliothèque nationale de France», the name become « Audiovisual department ».

2.3. A larger access to the public

The Audiovisual Department, taking the opportunity of the transfer of the collections to a new building, has undertaken to give more access to its collections but also to others collections, often ignored by the public or with a difficult access and to cooperate with others institutions to report their collections. The patrimonial collection inherited from the national sound library will be expanded with the major acquisition programs currently under way, which mainly involve unpublished and hitherto rarely available material. Readers on the upper level will be able to consult an audiovisual collection made up for the most part with acquired audiovisual material and selected copies of patrimonial material. These include the most important works of reference in each discipline or genre. Until now, such often unpublished material has not been readily available for consultation: as in the lower collection, an open access collection of useful printed literature will be available. One of the lines used to select materials for the public is called « Observatory of France ». Some broadcasts, like the one called « Le pays d'ici » that presents a town and a country using oral statement to make the listeners feel the daily way of life, TV shows, movies produced by associations, institutions presenting areas, people, statements in the 60's and th 70's are showing a portrait of France with constructed archives.

The access to all the collections, inherited from the previous institutions or recently bought, need to know some tools. As for the unpublished materials entered in the institution in the first half of the century, a catalog, entitled Catalogue of the collections of the « Phonothèque nationale », produced by an International Commission on Arts and Traditions and published by Unesco in 1952, lists records made by researchers, by professional musicians or records made wtith non professionals in the studio in the institution itself. The materials collected since 1950 are on paper files with entries to the name of the researcher (department and aera), inquieries (and name of the researcher, date and departement) and recordings (geographical classification). Thanks to stock-taking programs and the computerization of the previous inventory files, launched in 1994, the contents of the collection will be well documented as from the opening date, and included in the overall Bibliothèque catalogue. The French national bibliography on Sound, audiovisual and multimedia documents is produced from the bibliographic database of the audiovisual departmlent. This bibliographic database holds the records of all the documents arrived in the audiovisual departement by legal deposit since 1983. You can search in all these computerized catalogues ; the description is made using the international standards and cataloguing rules, with a lot of access. There is a special way to have access to the documents on oral traditions catalogued with a title structured like « Traditions France ».

The « Bibliothèque nationale de France» has also undertaken to make its collections in connection with collections of others libraries. The Bibliothèque aims to be the hearth of a network of french libraries or others institutions (archives, institutes, etc.). The Audiovisual Department, aware of the restraint in dealing with such materials in a material, bibliographical, technical point of view, wants to share these matters with the differents bodies in charge of sound archives in a cooperative way. In the field of oral tradition, a project has been made with the F.A.M.D.T., what will become a « pôle associé » (associated center). In this agreement, the « Bibliothèque nationale de France » will bring its skill in bibliographic standardization and the possibility to give access to some F.A.M.D.T. materials within the library. The collections chosen are for « Dastum » breton heritage, especially song and tale, for the Conservatoire occitan the occitant heritage, especially song and dance in the Gascogne, the Béran, The Languedoc occidental and the Lauragais, for « Métive » the heritage of the poitevin and saintongeais areas and especially in the Poitou, in the Charente and in the Vendée and for the Mediterranean and Human Science House the provençal heritage in music and oral tradition. According to the terms of the agreement, the bibliographical records of the sound materials that the « Bibliothèque nationale de France » will help to do will be in the « Catalogue collectif de France » (French Union Catalogue). The « Bibliothèque nationale de France» has implemented a major program aiming to produce a joint catalogue of all documents in French libraries. The aim of the French Union Catalogue is precisely to supply researchers with an integrated search system enabling them to identify, locate their documents. A selection of documents on oral traditions of each associations will be accessible within the « Bibliothèque nationale de France».

Nowadays, French people are fond of oral traditions. The movements supporting regional independance, the revival, or the re-creation, of specific culture, the acknowledgement of specific languages, the resurgence of the provincial names contribute to the construction of a regional cultural identity. The oral traditions is a precious testimony of the cultural plurality of a region, used by ethnologists, linguists and historians. Plural (regions, areas, languages, landscapes, bell towers, habits, costumes, etc) is now decisive in the representations of France. Collecting and preserving oral traditions is participating to a twofold concern : keeping testimony of pasts but also presenting the French mosaic. These sound collections, that capture oral traditions as frozen words, make the institutional actors asking themselves about the value and the use of these ressources : will they be reusable by the next researchers, and how ? would they be a background for the search of ones' roots within the local space ? Do we act as a museum curator ? as a cultural mediator ?


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