For many years I have been working with oral tradition and with endangered sounds: languages and music.
It all started one night in north-eastern Argentina, when I sat down in front of an old man of the Qom indigenous people, ready to record a couple of legends. Instead, he kept me up all night, telling me the complete mythology of his people.
The next morning, I realized that I had just witnessed a unique spectacle, and that I wanted to dedicate my career and my efforts to prevent memories as those of that old man to be lost in oblivion.
Since then, I have been working in a very rich field. And, at the same time, in one full of conflicts and biases.
There are many who pick up the voices of indigenous peoples and other "minority" groups: groups that have been punished and massacred or, at best, ignored and invisible. And there are many who, when gathering the stories, the memories, the complaints and the struggles of those peoples, ensure that they are "giving voice to the voiceless."
Such an assertion is terribly arrogant.
It assumes that these peoples —all those men and women— have no voice, when in fact they do. A very strong one. A different thing is that there are not many ears interested in hearing it.
Or it assumes that the only "voice" that can be considered as such is the one reaching the greatest number of ears: the voice of the media, the dominant voice. This is equivalent to accepting that there is no life outside the media, and endorsing an unfair and degrading status quo, which gives and takes "the voice" according to their interests — and which often requires intermediaries for certain stories to be told.
I was once one of those arrogant ones who thought to give voice to those who did not have it.
Over the years I ended up understanding that it was not necessary to give them a voice: it was necessary to remove their gags.
And we (especially those of us who work as librarians, managers of human memory) need to remove the blinders that keep us in our comfortable reality, and take a look around us. Trust me: what you will find will amaze you.
Memory preservation institutions are concerned with preserving fragments of the intangible heritage of our species. Some of them have specialized in specific fragments: for example, in the threatened sounds (languages and music) of certain indigenous societies.
There are many institutions of this type that work from an "external" position, i.e. without the direct participation of the owners of the knowledge and the memories that they intend to safeguard. The (sometimes self-proclaimed) "saviors" often have no other contact with the "saved" (who sometimes do not want or need to be saved, by the way) than the one necessary to "extract" the information that feeds their projects.
Projects that are usually academic, linked to universities or similar institutions and open only (or partially) to academics. This betrays the motives and intentions of these institutions and their managers.
Is it possible that the son of the man who appears in the record X of an oral archive cannot access it because he is not an academic researcher? Is it possible that, in order to access his knowledge, the family of the (already deceased) musician who appears in the record Y of a sound-based library has to fill an official request stating their reasons? How is it possible that human memory —a part of our heritage as a species, and a supposedly threatened part, which would theoretically need more visibility— is owned (virtually or really) by a few, and that those few, instead of divulgating it, become their rabid guard dogs, limiting its access?
It is often argued that those who provided their testimonies and allowed those records to be collected gave their consent to such uses. Those of us who have been working on these issues for a long time know very well how little informed "informed consent" are, and how much they can hide behind the phrase "this recording will be used for academic purposes."
And those of us who have been dealing with the Academia for the same time also know of the interest of scholars and thesis-writers in finding a "rare" culture that allows them to do "interesting" work; of the fights over projects that can give some return (economic... or the other); of the many "collectors" of orality and memory who end up becoming the "authors" of such memory (and believing they have rights over it) simply because they have been one more link in the chain and have collected it; and how the hierarchy and the status quo of the Academia are perpetuated, and its exclusive values...
Fortunately, digital humanities are changing the landscape. And the day will come when all those records, kept under seven keys for doctors and university professors in the libraries, museums and universities of the world, will be open for everyone's use.
Because that's what they are: everyone's heritage.
The story tells that the violinist Itzhak Perlman, in one of his concerts, broke a string of his instrument. A very noticeable break. The conductor stopped the accompanying orchestra and looked at him, waiting for his decision: to follow or to stop. Perlman closed his eyes for a moment, then made a gesture, asking him to go on.
The concert was majestic. Sublime. The audience applauded in rage at the end. After the applause, Perlman said: "Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left."
The anecdote —probably an urban legend— is used by many psychologists today as a parable against envy. But there are many librarians (especially in the so-called "developing" countries) for whom the phrase is not a parable, but a daily reality. There are many who know about this "artistic" task of discovering how much can be done with the little they have, with whatever they have left.
Anyone who has visited the school libraries in the south of the Chaco province or the Sierras Grandes in the province of Cordoba in Argentina (not to mention those of the dry forests of Santiago del Estero, the Andean highlands in Salta or the steppe in Neuquén) knows that those teachers/librarians do miracles with the few resources at their disposal. Daily miracles that require a lot of effort, a lot of commitment, a lot of sacrifice... A little known and unrecognized work.
A work replicated by mobile and rural and public and popular libraries throughout Latin America. An invisible work, hidden from the great magazines and the great congresses, the great international organizations and the great libraries, but the one forming the base on which the continent's librarian system is grounded.
It would be advisable for those librarians not to be forced to work under such conditions, struggling to do a lot with nothing. It would be advisable for the relevant authorities to deal with these problems, and for libraries with more resources to show their solidarity.
And in any case, until that help arrives —and anyone who has lived in Latin America knows well enough that it may take a long time— it would be decent to show all the respect and admiration for those who do all they can with the little they have left.
About the posts
Texts: Edgardo Civallero.
Las entradas pertenecientes a la serie de notas Conocimiento y biosfera pueden leerse aquí, junto a las de las series Apuntes críticos y Gotas de animación a la lectura. Asimismo pueden consultarse las distintas entradas de las columnas Palabras ancladas, Los muchos caminos, Palabras habitadas y Libros y lecturas indígenas.
Por último, las conferencias, los artículos académicos y otros trabajos similares pueden consultarse a través del listado completo de publicaciones, o bien revisando el archivo de Acta Académica (de acceso libre) o las plataformas Academia.edu, Issuu, Scribd y Calameo.