American Collections blog

14 March 2019

North American Indigenous languages

The North American collections section is currently recruiting for a PhD student to work on a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD focusing on Indigenous languages in the post-1850 print collections.  The student will be supervised jointly by Professor Joy Porter at the University of Hull (see separately the 'Treatied Spaces' project underway there) and Dr Francisca Fuentes Rettig, curator for the North American collections at the British Library.  Additionally the student will have access to a wider support team consisting of Indigenous academics and experts in Indigenous languages, and training opportunities in languages, digital humanities, and more.

The Library has a rich collection of materials from North America in Indigenous languages.  Thanks to detailed research by our Library colleague Adrian Edwards, there is a clear record for earlier publications particularly for early Eastern Algonquian languages and early Northern Iroqouian languages.  The latter article also covers print materials up to 1900.  Additionally, we know from our internal cataloguing system that we currently have catalogue records for publications in approximately fifty North American indigenous languages.  Given that we know that there are 296 indigenous languages in North America, it is clear that significant gaps in our holdings knowledge remains.  These gaps are partly due to the nature of large historic collections with multiple origins, and the processes of libraries.  For just one example, materials predominantly in English or French language, and which contain Indigenous languages do not always clearly indicate this in catalogue records.

Another challenge is the sheer diversity of languages across North America, as well as the complexities of language cross-overs.  In the US particularly, the historic movement of languages from traditional geographical territories was a consequence of government policies of forced relocation. Policies of forced assimilation further impacted on the decline of some languages. 

Rb.23.b.7830 cover
Treaty between the United States and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians, shelfmark Rb.23.b.7830
RF.2018.b.80
The Catholic Sioux Herald, shelfmark RF.2018.b.80


From an information science perspective, Library systems and catalogues have of course developed historically from and within Western systems of classification of knowledge.  As such, they do not necessarily respond to the complexities of these languages and the cultural sensitivities associated with them.  Finally, the specialist knowledge that would be required to conduct a comprehensive assessment of materials is sparse in the UK.

Yh.1988.b.1362
An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language, shelfmark YH.1988.b.1362

However, we are thankfully not starting from scratch.  Vital lessons can be learnt from our library and archives colleagues in the US, Canada, and Australasia.  In the last decades substantial amounts of research has been conducted in the field, which has seen critical interventions made by Indigenous library and information science (LIS) professionals and researchers who have developed the theory, tools, and methods to recalibrate information management systems.  They have done this with the needs of Indigenous materials in mind, working closely with communities. 

L.49 1416 a
L.49 1416 aContemporary bilingual publications in Hopi and Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskan, shelfmarks L.49/1416 ; YA.1992.a.15015 ; YA.1995.a.24337

Of particular interest are open source digital humanities projects, such as the Mukurtu platform.  Projects such as these are a major part of the effort to revitalize Indigenous languages and cultures to ensure their longevity for future generations of tribes.  Given that many languages have already died, and many more are on the UN's critically endangered list, this is important and time-sensitive work.  The new approaches present interesting challenges to a large international institution that uses massive knowledge-systems, has standardised practices, and is responsive to the growing demand for digital materials and data.  Yet, we would be remiss to see this as anything other than an important opportunity, both in intellectual and ethical terms.

It is our sincere hope that this CDP will signal the start of a longer journey towards reconsidering how we work with existing Indigenous language collections, and build a clear rationale for if, how and why we acquire such materials for future collections.  Central to this longer-term project will be open conversations with tribes.  However, the first step is to rationalise and complete existing collections knowledge so that we have a comprehensive picture of the languages and kinds of materials that we hold, so that we can identify who we need to approach.  We also need to review how existing digital humanities projects might work in a specific British Library context, and what practical challenges we could expect.  The Collaborative Doctoral Placement will play an important part in this process and, we hope, be received as a signal of our commitment to this project through the training of research, LIS, and cultural institution professionals in the UK who can carry this work forwards in future.

For any enquiries regarding the PhD opportunity, please refer to the information on our website.  The deadline for applicants is April 15.

For interested parties who do not meet the eligibility criteria of our funding body, please see the Eccles Centre website for details of alternative funding opportunities, collection guides, and bibliographies.

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