Twitter has recently brought news that AIATSIS’s digital preservation program is to be cut.
This is unfortunate to say the least. AIATSIS was engaged in digitising the cultural patrimony of the first cultures to inhabit Australia, and in the process assembling a resource unique in the world of how pre contact, essentially hunter gatherer cultures functioned.
Now as any anthropologist or archaeologist will tell you, one of the problems of studying hunter gatherer cultures, and remember, we were all hunter gathers once, is that they have left few artefacts and very little context – we can say that features, stones may have had signficance, but we cannot say how they were significant to vanished cultures elsewhere.
In Australia, it is almost uniquely different. Missionaries, anthropologists, explorers, and the just plain curious came into contact with these societies while they were still fully functioning societies as late as the mid twentieth century. Not only did they write things down, they recorded the stories and songs of a rich oral culture on film, on tape, even on early video recordings.
The trouble with all these field recordings is that people did what they did with it and in the main forgot about it, leaving tapes and film to decay on the selves of their offices, in their garden sheds, whatever.
AIATSIS has since the sixties been building a collection of these materials and conserving them. However, in the last ten or so years the world has gone digital, and in response to this AIATSIS has been engaged in a program of digital preservation – essentially scanning the films, and converting the tapes to digital formats to ensure their long term preservation.
I had a small part of this – I helped design and procure their digital asset management solution – the system to keep track of all the recordings and to guard against corruption and bitrot. What started as a technically interesting and challenging job became much more than that. It’s not often in computing that you feel a sense of mission about something, but I did about that job, and I still feel that their digital preservation work is important.
Important as it preserves a unique body of spoken material in a number of endangered languages, and because it provides a body of information about how hunter gatherers interact with the landscape and with each other.
Apart possibly from some cultures from Brazil, we simply do not have another body of material. In the same way that reading Aristophanes tells you things about how fourth century Athens functioned, down to having chickpeas as a pre dinner nibble with wine, this material tells you how these peoples dealt with what was, in the main, harsh unfriendly desert environment.
I don’t normally get on my soapbox and shout, but there is a risk that some material may be lost. It is not just of value to the aboriginal peoples of Australia, but to all of us. We were all once hunter gatherers foraging for seeds and roots…