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65th IFLA Council and General


Bangkok, Thailand, August 20 - August 28, 1999

Preserving and stimulating oral tradition using the Internet

Steve Cisler
Board Member, Association for Community Networking

Paper presented at an International Conference on "Collection and Safeguarding the Oral Tradition", a Satellite Meeting of The 65th IFLA Council and General Conference August 16-19, 1999, Khon Kaen. Local organization provided by Mahasarakham University, Maha Sarakham, Thailand.


In the beginning was the word, or was it? I do not want to read a paper to you, and I do not want to make this just a presentation. I would like it to be a story or a collection of tales about what other people are doing to use new technologies for the preservation and stimulation of oral tradition.

So, if we had a fire in the center of our meeting place, I'd ask you to gather round. Imagine a dark cool evening. Imagine that the fire has already been used for cooking our meal, and now the flames have died down. If you sit close enough, you can see my face and the gestures I make with my hands, and I can see your faces. What happens next depends on my skill as a storyteller, or as a puppetmaster, or as a poet or griot. And it also depends upon you. Your responses fuel the enthusiasm of the storyteller. However, this setting is still a scholarly conference, taking place in a university with high technology support mechanisms and electric lights and the Internet. But let's pretend...

One of the central figures in theories about orality is a scholar named Walter Ong. author of Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. In this work he describes the differences between primary oral cultures--ones that do not have a system of writing--and chirographic cultures which are dominated by writing and print. These are the cultures that support professions like librarianship and editors and web designers. Ong says these chirographic cultures began about 6000 years ago and are co-existing not only with oral ones but some are cultures where so-called second orality is emerging. These new environments are influenced by radio, television, and other electronic media, and they combine elements of oral and chirographic culture. Though he did not write about the Internet, it seems to me that it is spawning a new orality in ways that radio and television have not. This is the subject of my talk.

My introduction to oral tradition was during a course in African folklore. There I learned that knowledge of all sorts has been transmitted by word of mouth, that it was more than moral fables and tales for young people. The knowledge flow included religious beliefs, customs, aphorisms, laws, humor, and accurate histories of the people. I remember a Ph.D. thesis written in 1964 that showed how closely the oral histories transmitted by a tribe in Mozambique over 4 centuries matched the writings of 16th century Portuguese explorers. However, the Africans' memory is better than mine because I cannot give you a correct citation for the thesis.

In Theravada Buddhism--which is practiced in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand--it is believed that the earliest scriptures were preserved in the Pali language. At the time of the Buddha's death, these 84,000 units of teaching were not written down. About 3 months after his death, a council of 500 disciples was convened in what is now the Indian state of Bihar. The purpose was to ensure that all the teachings would be complete and authoritative. One elder was the questioner, and two others provided answers. The rest listened and gave feedback. The context for the teachings was also orally transmitted, and when everyone present was satisfied, all recited them to show their acceptance. There were other councils to refute certain teachings, and in the first century B.C. they were finally written-- transcribed to palm leaves, made from the lontar palm. which not only provides material to store information, knowledge, and images but also yields a very tasty drink and material for building houses.

In Burma, this tradition of recitation and reinforcement and correction by peers continues to this day. So we can say that, even without written records on palm leaves, parchment, paper, CD-ROMs, or computer network servers, some knowledge can be accurately transmitted over hundreds of years.

Earlier this year I visited a famous library in the coastal town of Sirinaja, Bali, Indonesia. The Gedong Kirtya houses 2000 lontar books, many of which are originally Hindhu epics and knowledge that was originally orally transmitted. A young man employed at the library had just finished making a copy of a complicated work. The process took five months. At one time this was a new media, and now it is almost unknown. Few people in the Bali can read these works any more. Are there parallels to obsolete technology that no longer works and thus hides the recorded knowledge on decaying media?

The New Tools

When I say "new technologies" I mean computers and networks. Some use the shorthand ICT: information and communications technologies. Others just say the Internet and when they say that, it's not just the network of networks now connecting more than 200 countries but also the people using the Internet, the hardware--computers, laptops, routers, Palm pilots, servers, Internet telephones, the applications and other software, and the content being archived and moved around the networks. Together this forms a kind of Internet culture, but it is not monolithic. It takes many shapes, and what may be common in Silicon Valley or Paris or Bangkok, may be too expensive, illegal, or impractical in Bali, Bogota, or Tunis.

Much of my time is spent working on public access projects for Internet access in the United States and in other countries. I am well aware of the problems of connectivity and the disparity in options for countries with few resources to maintain electronic mail access, not to mention the more bandwidth hungry applications like audio and video. Still, I want to tell you about a wide range of these projects to offer some options for libraries in the present and for the future.

I think it is critical that libraries be aware of these developments, even if they cannot afford to take part. The Internet is changing the way libraries work; it is changing our cultures, our business models of publishing, of entertainment, of national memory. It is exciting and it is volatile. For many, it is moving too fast, and many worry that valuable practices, artifacts, knowledge, and memories will be lost or distorted. For others, it opens new possibilities and new means of self expression.

Marshal McLuhan viewed new technologies as extensions of humanity, and he viewed them optimistically. Sven Birkerts, a writer and critic, believes the new technologies are corrosive and are harmful to cultures and institutions. He was worried about the printed word. This week we have discussed the spoken word, and some are worried that is a tradition that is being corroded by the Internet.

Corrosive: a term that is very descriptive and usually negative. We think of something solid that is being weakened, undermined, and destroyed: of poor quality paper books rotting on humid shelves in our libraries, of acid tossed on a painting as an act of protest or of madness, and of a culture being assaulted from without by some hostile and powerful force. Some people see the Internet as corrosive to local cultures, much in the same way as the international financial network flows can undermine local currencies. Many a scholarly paper has debated the effects of the radio, television, and telephone on language, local traditions, and customs. The U.S. entertainment industry is viewed by some as having a corrosive effect on local cultures. But what about the Internet?

While agreeing that the Internet may affect local language, culture, and expression, we must remember that neither language, nor culture, nor storytelling is static. While English is dominant now, there is still room for other languages to flourish. While there may be rules, traditions, and norms, they have always changed. There may be examples that we want to preserve, but I believe that we must also stimulate these traditions, and the new technologies can do that.

When I was doing grants at Apple Computer for the Apple Library of Tomorrow program we worked with librarians and museum curators who were both very conservative and very innovative and forward-looking. This was evident in projects such as The Library of Congress American Memory, The Zuni-English multimedia dictionary, the University of Alaska digital audio preservation project, the Dead Sea Scrolls digitization project, and Singing Light, the first CD-ROM produced by a public library in Northern California, that combined oral history transcripts and digitized photos of Pomo Indian collections.

What encouraged me was that the success of the project did not depend on our gifts of computers and software, nor on the prestige of the library (some large ones failed in impressive ways), but on the skills of the librarians to work with the people and materials at hand to create exciting projects that inspired others to continue and explore.

Oral tradition on the Internet includes a variety of areas: language preservation; oral history; storytelling; poetry; and new media (digital radio and webcasts). Each of these includes archives of papers, databases, and events, and for each group there are associations which are using the Internet to grow and to keep members informed. Finally, there are new collaborations that involved groups that never would have met before the Internet became popular. Some of these are online and some are offline but only last as long as the duration of the project or event. For instance, this conference used the web to call for papers, and the organizers and speakers used email to work out the details, submit papers, and keep informed about the agenda. This ability to link up, to collaborate will lessen the isolation of people involved in oral history, storytelling, and poetry projects around the world.

Language preservation

A language will stay alive if there are sufficient numbers of people speaking and perhaps writing it, and if the language serves the native speakers in their daily lives. It may be a language of commerce such as Hausa in West Africa, or it may be a sacred language by which eternal truths of a culture are transmitted between a priesthood and the lay people, between the old and the young. It may be a local language that describes the environment far better than any outside language. This last assumption is at the heart of a cross disciplinary group called Terralingua, whose association is primarily virtual. Their web site is at University of California, and they meet at conferences and workshops in different parts of the world. They post occasional papers to the site and share news with each other. Comprised of linguists, biologists, anthropologists, and geographers, this group believes that biological diversity is tied to the survival of local languages. Language diversity equals biological diversity and perhaps a healthier planet.

One of the most successful example of a language preservation project is taking place in Hawaii, the 50th state in the U.S.A. Many groups in the islands believe that the local culture is threatened by the western consumer society, the vast waves of tourists who come to visit and to live, and the dominance of the English language. Some want independence, others autonomy, others financial reparation for the U.S. overthrow of the monarchy about a century ago. At that time there was a mature publishing industry throughout the islands. Hawaiian was spoken by most of the original inhabitants, though waves of immigrants from the Philippines, Japan, and Portugal, as well as the mainland of the United States, usually did not learn more than a few words of Hawaiian. When the language was banned in schools in favor of English, the newspapers and number of books available to the people dwindled, and by 1985, there were less than 25,000 people who spoke the language. In fact, more people spoke Samoan than Hawaiian! A group of Hawaiian graduate students concerned about the lack of a structure for teaching Hawaiian to little children formed a preschool where any child could be immersed in the language. Over the years, as the children have grown, there are now high school graduates and courses for all levels. At the same time as the school spread around the islands, a small technical staff offered training, collaboration, and communications online. Everything is in the language, including the operating system of the computers, Netscape, and the other applications commonly used in schools. They have involved the local experts (elders and academic) by convening them twice a year to deliberate about new translations into Hawaiian (mouse, download, browser). It is an excellent example of how the Internet and computer technology is used to reinforce an innovative yet traditional program in the educational system. On standard tests the children do better in English than the mainstream students from the state school system, so they are not being isolated from the dominant language of commerce and higher education.

Oral history archives

Oral history archives are found in many institutions and local organizations, including university libraries. Some of these collections are being digitized and put online. Many restrictions apply to who is eligible to listen and when. There might be a waiting period as long as a century, and the storage media may not last long enough for the researcher to benefit! The Oral History Association links up its members through a web site and a popular mailing list: H-Oralhist which includes academics and scholars working in the field of oral history. The archives online usually include a catalog of the transcripts and some of the actual documents, usually transcribed at a later time and then digitized and put in a database.

The U.S. Library of Congress' American Memory project has many collections of sounds, photographs, and transcripts including hundreds of interviews carried out during the economic depression in the 1930's by the Federal Writers Project. The web site lets the user browse by locale, informant or search by keyword within the document. Other collections are focused on historical movements or events: Berkeley, California in the 1960's; women's right to vote; separation of Australian Aboriginal children from their families, and survivors of Kmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia.

Traditional storytellers and their community online

Storytelling in the United States is enjoying a revival. In the 1970's it seemed that the itinerant storyteller was supported by small honoraria from the children's departments of public libraries. Even today, one of the most rewarding programs at the American Library Association is the storytelling night. Librarians not only support storytellers; they participate. The Appalachian region of the United States has been known for its rich tradition of stories passed on orally, and it is also the location for the largest U.S. storytelling festival that takes place during the summer each year. Storytellers who have their own web pages have formed a ring of such sites. The ring is a starting point that provides links to all the member pages, and is usually organized very informally, though members can establish rules or guidelines. Rings also exist for hundreds of other subjects besides storytelling.

Indigenous people have had a long tradition of storytelling, and it continues on the Internet. It is a blend of self-expression and a desire to assert cultural identity in another realm besides dance, art, religion, and traditional knowledge. I have been working with Russ Imrie, a Mohawk Indian who runs a web site for some of the Costanoan Indian tribe in California. Storytelling is an important way to keep their versions of history passed on to younger generations. They publicize the annual storytelling festival and include QuickTime videos of Indian historians and storytellers. Many books do not tell their stories from their point of view, and they view the web as their own medium of expression to correct history, to strengthen their own identity.

Digital storytelling and new forms of expression.

Digital storytelling is a combination of traditional storytelling techniques, sometimes combined with live performance techniques, and with the use of multi-media to provide sound and video to supplement the spoken word. In some creations, everything is online, and the listener or computer user, explores in a non-linear fashion the mix of narrative, photographs, video clips, and sound archives. The act of creating this can be a single artist working with her computer equipment and memories, or it can be collaborative.

Digital storytelling is becoming popular for individuals, businesses, and non-profits who have, simply, a story to tell. The results may be classified as not-so-subtle advertisements to build up loyalty to a brand, as is the case with the Coca-Cola exhibit in Las Vegas, California or they may be very personal stories and family histories such as those created by Dana Atchley.

In the Digital Clubhouse in Sunnyvale, California, the members learn to use computers, scanner, and recording devices to tell a short story that is important to them or their organization. The process has been life-changing for some participants. The acquisition and application of new skills to reach an immediate goal has given a sense of control and power to older people, individuals who have felt isolated, and handicapped children. This public access center is also working with the local public library.

A critical part of the digital storytelling process is not putting the stories on the Web. They are too large for most people to access, but the creators gather at the clubhouse for afternoons and evenings of storytelling and sharing by making use of the facilities which include high end workstations, projection screens, comfortable furniture, and a helpful staff. The Internet is used to gather information, publicize the events, and link up Clubhouses into a growing network.

Poetry Slams

In the past few years there has been a renewed interest in poetry. In addition to publicizing traditional poetry (readings, publications, and the poets themselves) in E-poets.net, another Chicago-based phenomenon, poetry slams, have grown from a casual contest between poets in a bar to international competitions with teams from different cities, vying for prizes and audience approval. A poetry slam is scored by a few members of the audience, and each performance, about three minutes long, is scored between 1 and 10. The audience is encouraged to participate by cheering and taking part. Many of these have an open microphone time when anyone can have a few minutes on stage--or online.

I attended a slam in San José for the teams from that town, San Francisco, and three other cities. All the teams were raising money to compete in the national competition which takes place in Chicago at the same time as this conference. Some slams are webcast over the Internet. Marc Boothe, who runs www.23:59.co.uk in the United Kingdom, links up poetry slams in New York with those in London to bring together poets of African and Caribbean origin. Other competitions are publicized on message boards and slam web sites around the world.

Radio Stations.

Radio Free Monterey in California allows callers to listen, view via Real Video--if you have a good connection, chat and send email to the people who run the stations.

Radio Free Monterey is a virtual station; it does not broadcast on radio frequencies, but many regular stations that do also have a presence on the Web also provide audio portions of their programming, as well as supplementary information via the Internet. Every type is represented: commercial radio stations, government broadcasters, rebel groups, pirate broadcasters, and community radio stations. Libraries should be aware of AMARC, The World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters. Just as public libraries exist to serve the local communities, AMARC members are frequently found in rural areas of developing countries because the small portable radio is the easiest and least expensive way to get information and entertainment in an area where books, electricity, and television may be rare or non-existent. These community institutions are growing, and just as librarians don't want network enthusiasts to forget books as an important medium, AM, FM, and Shortwave radio is still very important. The use of radio as a democratic medium is the focus of a forthcoming conference: Radiocracy, at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. For more information see: http://www.df.ac.uk/uwcc/jomec/.

Radio web sites includes feedback to the staff, program schedules, and audio libraries of past programs. Some archives have hundreds of long programs stored for free listening, even with slow connections. Joe Frank the artist whose spoken performances were broadcast on public stations for many years, is no longer on the radio, but the archive of his programs resides in California at http://www.kcrw.org/. A problem for the archivist as well as the listener is what audio format to choose. Though Real Networks is used most widely for spoken word, there are also many other sound formats including those from Microsoft, Apple's QuickTime, and the extremely popular music format MP3. Real Networks has changed its software several times since the web became popular, and programs that are archived in a more recent format will not play on some computers that are not powerful enough to run the latest version. Consequently, you have programs stored in multiple formats which will not run on all or even the majority of machines.

Recommendations for Librarians

I intentionally made these recommendations for librarians and not for libraries. I do not believe that all of our institutions encourage experimentation and innovation, or if they do, it takes a long time for validation and diffusion. However, individual librarians will have to be passionate (and knowledgeable) before any of these projects can succeed. They, in turn, will convince, cajole, enlist, and evangelize other staff, foundations, partners (the poets, the elders in a community, museum colleagues, and of course their supervisors) or the projects will not happen. This may involve more work, a suspicion by others that you may not be doing your job, and in some cases you may leave your position and start work elsewhere in order to pursue your dream.

I have always believed that libraries need to redefine themselves to take advantage of local and strategic opportunities. This can be very hard if your budget is low, if you lack political power in your country, or if you don't have the time to finish your traditional work as a librarian. Yet we have spent four days together because we believe in new roles and new possibilities. We need to carry that on to the main conference in Bangkok, and back home.

Because the opportunities to support the oral tradition on the Internet are so varied, so too are the ways for small and large libraries to become involved. A library need not be connected to the Internet to support a local oral history effort. Convene a meeting to discuss this. Provide a room for interviews, a place to store the archived material. If your town has Internet access, visit the local Internet Service Provider and try to interest them in providing storage space on their server for local history audio files. Become familiar with the audio processing software for digital archives. There are many good programs for both Windows and Macintosh.

Read how poetry groups and slam contests were started in other places, and organize one in your library. If one already exists, see if they want to put on a program with the library as co-sponsor. Invite the Internet provider and local radio station, and with interest and collaboration the groups may come up with a plan to bring the spoken word online.

If the infrastructure in your area is not well developed or too expensive to use for this purpose, ensure that the library follows the technology and changes in network expansion so that it will be ready when access becomes more affordable.

In June 1999, I helped plan and run an Internet Society network training program for librarians in Latin America. At the end we started a mailing list to keep up with the changes and news items from our libraries in 10 countries. I admit that many conference attendees like to join a mailing list after a successful conference but do not take part once the memory has faded. Do we want to keep telling our stories to each other after we leave Khon Kaen? Or must we gather again in a room, under a tree, or around a fire to share what we have learned?

Links to site from the oral presentation:


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