Endangered archive of Siberian indigenous voices to be digitised - Museums Association

Endangered archive of Siberian indigenous voices to be digitised

Two-year project receives $50,000 to extract recordings from tapes
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Rebecca Atkinson
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The archive of cassette tapes is currently housed at Pushkin House in St Petersburg
The archive of cassette tapes is currently housed at Pushkin House in St Petersburg

The University of Aberdeen has been awarded $50,000 to digitise an endangered archive containing the voices, stories and songs of the indigenous people of the Siberian region.

The recordings were made over a period of six decades from 1920s to the 1980s and are currently held on cassette tape at Pushkin House in St Petersburg, Russia. Their format means they are in danger of turning to dust within 20 years if they are not digitised.

“This is the largest collection of Siberian indigenous voice recordings in the world,” said Dmitry Arzyutov, an honorary research fellow at the university and co-lead on the project. “It may rival the Smithsonian collection both in terms of its design and scope but remains little known. We hope this project will help to shine a light on this important collection, which is in great risk of disappearing and with it this intimate portrait of lifestyles.”

David Anderson, an anthropology professor at Aberdeen and co-lead on the project, said: “Having the stories, songs, language and history of indigenous groups from the Siberian region spoken in their own voices is hugely important for future generations of local people and scholars.

“Industrialisation and other external interferences have in some cases near extinguished the local and indigenous languages and traditions of these groups so losing this material would be devastating.”

But the process to extract the recordings will be challenging. A laboratory will be established in St Petersburg and specialist sound technicians will be recruited to extract the audio recordings from tapes.

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“Russian cassette tapes from the Soviet era are particularly fragile and here the process of degradation has been speeded up by water leakages in the building, which have increased the humidity,” Anderson said.

“For the most badly damaged tapes, extracting what they contain requires them to be baked in an oven but after that, you only get one chance at playing them before the recordings are lost.

“We will be working with Russian sound technicians on this process which then requires them to be disassembled, rewound and played at different speeds to remove the interference caused by damage to the tapes, which stick together causing squealing sounds.”

Once digitised, researchers will share the resources with indigenous communities in Siberia and the North through relationships built up through other projects and work in this area.

“Our work and analysis can help to reconstruct the transnational history of Arctic indigenous voice recordings and most importantly, make them accessible again to the indigenous communities to which they belong,” Arzyutov said.

The project is funded by the Modern Endangered Archives Program at the UCLA Library and the Arcadia Fund, a charitable fund of philanthropists Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.

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