Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and countries in the Pacific are home to a quarter of the world’s languages.
Many of the languages though are at risk of disappearing without a trace.
To help preserve them and the cultural traditions of the Asia Pacific region, Australian universities have developed an extensive digital archive of precious material.
The Australian National University’s Professor Nicholas Evans has been at the forefront of the digital library known as PARADISEC, which stands for the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures.
“The goal of PARADISEC is to create a special, enduring digital archive for the languages and cultures of our region and that includes music, it includes story telling it includes a lot things other than just language itself,” he said.
“(It) will be a secure repository that will hold things and which ultimately can be accessed by anyone.”
The collection is the culmination of a 10 year project between teams at the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University in Canberra.
The University of Sydney’s Professor Linda Barwick says the material was mostly created by linguists, musicologists and anthropologists, as part of their field work.
“We’ve got something like 7,596 hours of recordings and they’re in over 600 different languages that come from all over the Asia Pacific region,” she said.
“Often the recordings are unrepeatable from the 1950s and 60s – sometimes languages and music, musical traditions no longer performed or spoken.”
This year PARADISEC was recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO, as part of Australia’s significant documentary heritage.
The University of Melbourne’s Dr Nick Thieberger says the project team has been forging ties with institutions in the Pacific.
“We’ve had good connections with the Institute of Papua New Guinea studies and the Vanuatu cultural centre and the Tjibaou Centre in New Caledonia,” he said.
“At the moment, we have a funding application to work with the Solomon Islands Museum, who have some 800 tapes sitting in Honiara and not basically doing anything.”
But funding hasn’t been easy to come by.
There’ve been grants from the Australian Research Council but nothing long term.
“We stagger from deadline to deadline and improvised solution to improvised solution,” Professors Evans said.
“We dream of the day when the Australian Government or maybe some philanthropist sees the deep value in what we’re doing and says look let’s put you on a longer term footing.”
Dr Thieberger says the material can’t afford to be lost.
“I’d say they’re priceless and unique,” he said. “Often they’re the only recordings ever made with a particular group of people.”