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Magazines > Information Today > November 2017

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Information Today
Vol. 31 No. 9 — November 2017
TOP STORY
An Observatory to Collect It All
by Edgardo Civallero


As a digital humanities project, the observatory will combine academic research methods and values with the best digital tools and techniques to collect and present its contents.
The Observatory of Libraries and Indigenous Peoples in Latin America (www.bibliotecasypueblosoriginarios.org) is a recently launched, still-under-development project designed by me, an Argentina-born, Spain-based library and information sciences (LIS) professional. I’ve spent most of my career working with indigenous knowledge, oral tradition, intangible heritage, and endangered sounds (language and music), and I have a special interest in library services for indigenous peoples in Latin America—services that have been irregularly approached and implemented in South America. I worked in northeastern Argentina, collecting oral traditions and creating small sound libraries based at local schools in communities of the Qom, the Moqoit, and the Pit’laxa peoples (2001–2006). I have also produced a number of papers, conference presentations, columns, blog posts, and digital books and handbooks on this topic, mainly in Spanish, but also in English; some of them are included in the bibliography of this article.

Scattered and Missing Pieces

One of the main problems that anyone who’s interested in Latin American indigenous societies faces when trying to study some aspects of these groups is the absence of reliable data. The information available on topics such as languages and cultural heritage is, in general terms, scarce and irregular. Produced by a number of different sources, its scope, quality, and trustworthiness are hugely variable. Official censuses and government statistics—which are not always to be believed—mix with notes signed by nongovernmental organizations or religious groups, thesis or research papers (their authors are usually one-time visitors of an indigenous community, who only stay there long enough to extract the information they need and then leave), and even websites created and maintained by indigenous communities themselves, local radio stations, cultural activists, or sociopolitical movements.

Some aspects of the indigenous reality have not even been covered at all, and the state of libraries is one of them. A limited handful of poorly divulged reports, conferences sessions, digital news items, and blog posts, as well as personal communications, indicate that there are and have been a number of experiences carried out in Latin America regarding library services for indigenous peoples. Related to this topic, work is also being done on language recovery, indigenous books and websites, oral archives, and miscellanea of activities whose core subject is traditional, native knowledge.

However, the information on these projects is rare. If and when it’s available, it’s poor and dispersed. It resembles a puzzle with its pieces scattered everywhere—some of those pieces are lost, changed, or damaged—and the original picture is blurry.

Without a current state-of-the-art technology providing at least a simple, elementary baseline, a diagnosis of problems, absences, opportunities, and caveats related to libraries for indigenous users is almost impossible to carry out. Lack of information leads researchers to guess a lot (not always correctly) and connect the dots with uncertain lines in order to draft a potential—and most likely incomplete—scenario. And without a solid scenario, new projects can’t be implemented. At least, not without a high failure risk.

The absence of information means that there is not a collection of recorded experiences—of whatever has been done and whether it was a failure or success. So what has been achieved and problems that have been faced are mostly unknown: Those data are unavailable as valuable inputs for other processes or simply for evaluation and study. No conclusions can be extracted, no lessons learned. Which, in practice, is equivalent to saying that these experiences did not happen at all. Because they are invisible. Unknown. Terra incognita for the rest of the world.

A Possible Solution

Given the present situation, what if all the scattered pieces could be, at the very least, gathered in a single place? What if a space could be created to compile, complete, update, organize, classify, and make public and visible—as well as eventually allow people to analyze, study, and use—all the missing information?

This idea has been partially tested in Latin America, in a project related to indigenous knowledge: Brazil’s Curt Nimuendajú Digi tal Library (etnolinguistica.org). It is a virtual platform on which books and academic materials related to indigenous languages are digitized, uploaded, classified, and made available for public use, from 16th-century Jesuit grammar texts to modern linguistic analyses. This resource is extremely valuable in a field in which, traditionally, information moves in small academic circles, and sometimes, due to their rarity, materials are not even accessible.

The Curt Nimuendajú Digital Library is an example of digital humanities: the union of academic values with the tools and culture of the internet. A virtual community of both professionals and amateurs is behind the scenes, making the best use of the resources at hand for the common good, empowering those interested in indigenous sounds (including many researchers), and supporting endangered languages—a topic covered by most international declarations on intangible heritage.

Taking an approach to the problems of indigenous scholarship, as well as the digital humanities perspective, to the field of librarianship, the Observatory of Libraries and Indigenous Peoples in Latin America got its start in February 2017. It aims to collect information related to indigenous knowledge and its management, primarily offering library services to native peoples as well as books in aboriginal languages, oral archives, and collective memory initiatives.

This online archive will gather experiences and all of the available information related to them (including bibliographical information) and will contact creators/managers whenever possible in order to get additional data, testimonies, opinions, and results. Hopefully, once the best-known contents are made public, other participants will follow, adding value to the site and providing clues to find old and ongoing uncharted projects.

Contacts, surveys, advertise ments in professional spaces, social media, and more will be used to make the project visible, alert people to its goals, and encourage them to get directly and actively involved. Hopefully, a community of interest and practice will progressively grow around the observatory, using its information as fuel, providing feedback and resources to improve the workflow, allowing the increase of data and additional documentation, and offering more visibility and support.

Networking may bring interaction and collaboration with similar initiatives in other parts of the world. Also, the project will form links with organizations, groups, and collectives working on indigenous topics, as well as alliances with indigenous communities, all types of libraries, LIS associations and schools, and other institutions.

The collected information will be organized in different sections: one related to libraries, another to books, and a third to orality. A number of subsections will present additional resources, such as legislation, bibliographies, and statistics. As a digital humanities project, the observatory will combine academic research methods and values with the best digital tools and techniques to collect and present its contents.

The combination of a good corpus of experiences and a strong community working with it or around it may allow the observatory, in time, to perform data analysis, extract ideas and lessons, and produce guidelines, recommendations, compilations of best practices, and even handbooks with useful how-to instructions. Also, the community built around the project may be able to directly support experiences in the field for both academic researchers and indigenous communities.

The observatory is now taking its first steps. Considering the current state of indigenous knowledge all around the world in general, and in Latin America in particular, all hands are needed on deck. Collaboration will be more than welcome.

A Basic Bibliography of Edgardo Civallero’s Works

“Library Services for Indigenous Societies in Latin America: Experiences and Lessons,” ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition, American Library Association,
Chicago, 2017; https://aacademica.org/edgardo.civallero/169.pdf.

“Library Services for Indigenous Societies in Latin America,” World Library and Information Congress, International Federation of Library Associations and
Institutions, Wroclaw, Poland, 2017; https://aacademica.org/edgardo.civallero/175.pdf.

“Record My Indigenous Word: Or How Special Sound Collections May Break Internal Borders,” World Library and Information Congress, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, Wroclaw, Poland, 2017; https://aacademica.org/edgardo.civallero/176.pdf.

“Indigenous Oral Tradition in Southern Latin America: A Library’s Effort to Save Sounds and Stories From Silence,” World Library and Information Congress, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, Durban, South Africa, 2007; https://aacademica.org/edgardo.civallero/103.pdf.

“Libraries and Indigenous Peoples in Latin America,” Trends in Information Management, 2007, 3 (2) pp. 76–98; https://aacademica.org/edgardo.civallero/71.pdf.

“Libraries, Indigenous Peoples, Identity & Inclusion,” World Library and Information Congress, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, Durban, South Africa, 2007; https://aacademica.org/edgardo.civallero/35.pdf.

“Tribal Health in School Libraries: Oral Tradition and Cultural Expression,” World Library and Information Congress, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, Durban, South Africa, 2007; https://aacademica.org/edgardo.civallero/98.pdf.

“Libraries and Aboriginal Medicine: Experiences in Argentina,” World Library and Information Congress, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, Seoul, South Korea, 2006; https://aacademica.org/edgardo.civallero/25.pdf.

“Qadede Idá?at: Ancient Tradition Running Through the Family,” World Library and Information Congress, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, Seoul, South Korea, 2006; https://aacademica.org/edgardo.civallero/90.pdf.

“Indigenous Libraries, Utopia and Reality: Proposing an Argentine Model,” World Library and Information Congress, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2004; https://aacademica.org/edgardo.civallero/61.pdf.


Edgardo Civallero has a degree in library and information sciences. A professor, lecturer, and writer, he has specialized in digital humanities and knowledge classification and gained considerable experience in library services for indigenous peoples and minority groups, as well as in the management of oral traditions and endangered sounds (languages and music). Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com.