Linguists digitise 1970s children’s storybooks to help preserve indigenous languages

Children's books in Indigenous languages were created in the 1970s.

Children's books in Indigenous languages were created in the 1970s. Photo: Charles Darwin University

Few people involved in the indigenous language storybook programs of the 1970s could have realised how precious the books would be decades later.

During this time, bilingual education programs were rolled out in remote schools throughout the Northern Territory, allowing schoolchildren to read and write in their native languages before transitioning to reading and writing in English.

Thousands of unique, entry-level children’s books, often based on local stories and illustrated by local artists, were created in indigenous languages.

“Some were very simple and plain – just a line drawing with a couple of words,” linguist Cathy Bow said.

“Some were quite vibrantly illustrated with paintings and all sorts of interesting illustrations.”

The colourful books now scattered throughout the Northern Territory are still deeply important, according to Ms Bow.

And as the project manager of the Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages, she has helped make 3380 of them publicly available in an easy-to-use online archive.

Unearthing gems in unlikely places

Ms Bow and her team travelled to schools in locations as remote as Galiwin’ku, Barunga and Papunya to source the material.

A report that led to the establishment of the programs recommended “flooding the place with literature” – but the remains Ms Bow’s team have found might be better described as puddles.

If they have not been lost, damaged or destroyed already, the booklets are often collecting dust in long-forgotten school cupboards.

“There was a community where the bilingual program had closed,” Ms Bow recalled.

The Living Archive of Aboriginal Languages has collected these booklets from the 1970s. Photo: Charles Darwin University

“And there were books there that were taking up space. The principal thought, ‘We’re not using the books, let’s get rid of them’.”

A local missionary happened to pass by as the boxes of books were being thrown out.

Recognising what the boxes held, he asked that they be delivered to his house instead of the tip.

He stored them there for many years before they found their way to the archive.

“Now that’s probably the only copy of those books. All the others have been lost,” Ms Bow said.

Finding authors a difficult process

Some of the books may be missing pages, have typefaces that are unrecognisable to scanners, or simply be covered in scribble.

This has made the digitising process difficult.

Another challenge has been negotiating the issue of copyright, which in most instances is held by the Northern Territory government.

The grey zone between Australian copyright law and Indigenous understandings of intellectual property, however, is much more difficult to navigate.

Indigenous conceptions of knowledge ownership can vary widely.

“The person who can speak for a story might not be the person who is named in the book as its writer. That’s been very challenging,” Ms Bow said.

Ms Bow and her team have gone to extraordinary lengths to identify, locate and consult with a work’s author.

“Taking them out of their context and putting them online is quite a transformation,” she said. “We didn’t want to just go ahead and do that and assume everyone would be happy with it.”

It also means the archive has a backlog of about 1000 texts that will not be publicly available until permission to publish has been given.

Missing pieces in language map

Many indigenous languages are alive and well in the Northern Territory, but others have fallen out of use, been swapped for Kriol or are only known by an elderly few.

Archive screen

The map of the archive is colour-coded, meaning gaps in language knowledge are easy to spot. Photo: ABC

While Ms Bow’s team is no longer resourced to conduct remote visits, she hopes to continue unearthing new material from her office desktop.

The team has also launched a map corresponding to the archive that is colour-coded according to where materials have been found.

Swathes of the Territory – particularly to the north and east of Tennant Creek – are still grey, meaning nothing has turned up yet.

Ms Bow said she was still excited by the prospect of one day colouring these spaces in.

“There are a few grey areas where we don’t have materials. Any time I can turn a grey area into a colour, I get very excited,” she said.


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