Race against time to preserve records

In 2023, PARADISEC1, the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures, celebrates two decades as a vital online repository for the cultural heritage of endangered languages and musical traditions. Founded in 2003 and based at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, the Archive focuses on preserving recordings from endangered regions such as Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Australia, with a particular emphasis on Oceania. The archive’s vast collection has grown over time and now includes audio and video content in 1,350 languages. With a focus on Oceania, the archive contains recordings of performances, narratives, songs and oral traditions – a staggering total of more than 15,700 hours of audio and 2,600 hours of video. This collection of over 200 terabytes offers a profound insight into indigenous cultural practices.

A pressing challenge for the archive’s team is the digitisation of analogue material dating back to the 1950s and 60s. These analogue recordings, which are prone to degradation, risk becoming unplayable after 2025. In contrast, digitised versions offer longevity and accessibility. The PARADISEC team is racing against time to ensure these records are preserved and accessible, especially to communities with limited bandwidth. A unique tool using portable Wi-Fi networks makes it easy to access digitised materials. The importance of PARADISEC goes beyond preservation; it serves as a bridge between past and present cultural practices. The archive is central to preserving the identities of Indigenous communities, underpinned by language and music. Steven Gagau, a Tolai man from Papua New Guinea, emphasises how PARADISEC empowers speaker communities, enabling them to access and engage with their cultural heritage.

Dr Amanda Harris, Director of PARADISEC’s Sydney Unit, highlights the creative potential unlocked by the preservation of language and song recordings. The archive not only preserves traditions but also inspires innovative uses for the future. Over two decades, the collection has grown in both content and community engagement, fostering a deeper connection between Australia and its Pacific neighbours.

Jodie Kell, audio engineer and manager of the PARADISEC laboratory in Sydney, highlights the challenges faced during the preservation process, including the fragile condition of some analogue tapes. Despite these hurdles, digitisation breathes life into fragile recordings and brings invaluable cultural artefacts back to life. The archive’s online accessibility ensures that recordings of cultural heritage are available to speaker communities and researchers alike. As technology evolves, PARADISEC remains at the forefront, exploring innovative ways to engage remote regions. Recent collaborations have highlighted the symbiotic relationship between archives and communities, demonstrating that reviving ancient practices through singing can be a creative, transformative endeavour.

  1. Paradisec (2023): Race against time to preserve pacific recordings, in: The National Tribune, “https://www.nationaltribune.com.au/race-against-time-to-preserve-rare-pacific-recordings/?fbclid=IwAR1yohHggDrLzgF4LVK2inGtKbd2eDfOg33LvV5gscNeuF65_R3_cbriA5Aedin.com/analytics/search-appearances/, [Last Access: 15.08.2023] []
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