David Nathan Talk

September 7, 2010

Date and Time: Monday, October 4th, 2010, 6:30-8:30pm – CUNY Graduate Center on 365 Fifth Avenue between 34th and 35th street, Room 9207

Archiving for the future, today: the Endangered Languages Archive at SOAS

David Nathan

ELAR, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London Language documentations and the archives that hold them are valuable sources of linguistic research data. In the future, these archives will also become crucial vectors of transmission for many endangered and extinct languages. Thus the theory and practice of documentation and the capabilities of archives will play key roles in the futures of many human languages. Today, documentary linguistics needs an evaluative and critical discourse about its practices and outcomes. Researchers have been struggling to go beyond conceiving of documentations as collections of data files. One route forward is through consideration of documentation’s audiences and usages, to reach better understandings of the forms of documentation and what it means to publish them.

Just as documentary linguistics has found an ethical and community-oriented footing (Austin 2010), archives must also function as ethical publishers of this component of human heritage. The ELAR archive at SOAS has taken a social networking approach in order to address two major characteristics of endangered languages documentation: the sensitivity of many such materials (Thieberger & Musgrave 2007), requiring effective but nuanced access control; and the fluidity of the materials and their access conditions over time, requiring multiple ongoing relationships between depositors, users, and the archive (Nathan, in press). Tomorrow’s digital language archiving is not about technology but about relationships. Management of non-preservation functions is largely handed over to depositors and users, and the archive becomes redefined as a forum for building and conducting relationships and exchanges among them.

In this talk, I will outline and demonstrate ELAR’s approach to these issues.


Austin, Peter K. 2010. Current Issues in Language Documentation. In Peter K. Austin (ed.) Language Documentation and Description, Volume 7:12-33. London: SOAS.

David Nathan (in press) Archives 2.0 for Endangered Languages: from Disk Space to MySpace. In International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing. Edinburgh University Press. 2010.

Thieberger, Nicholas & Simon Musgrave. 2007. Documentary linguistics and ethical issues. In Peter K. Austin (ed) Language Documentation and Description, Volume 4. 26-37.