Our mission

Established over half a century ago as the first state-funded institution specifically devoted to California's indigenous languages, the Survey of California and Other Indian Languages has evolved into a twenty-first-century research center. We combine a traditional paper archive (now also increasingly available online) with ongoing documentation projects and a commitment to making our resources, and the knowledge we are privileged to preserve, accessible to all people.

Documentation

The central mission of the Survey has always been language documentation, focusing naturally on the dozens of indigenous languages of California but also including other languages of the Americas. We have sponsored documentary linguistic work from Alaska and Canada in the north to Peru and Bolivia in the south, but the bulk of our work has been in California, elsewhere in the western and southwestern United States, and in Mexico. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Survey developed a series of elicitation protocols that students used for quick, survey-style linguistic work throughout the state; these are now a valuable part of our permanent collection. At present, support for Berkeley students includes limited financial and technical assistance (including recording equipment), as well as physical and virtual storage space for temporary archiving of ongoing fieldwork projects. We also sponsor occasional workshops for California Indian communities with their own documentation programs, in which we give advice about good practices in documentation and archiving.

Lindsey Newbold and Verdena Parker, making recordings, 2009
Verdena Parker (left) and Lindsey Newbold (right), making recordings, 2009 (Photo courtesy of Lindsey Newbold)

Thanks to the generosity of the late Robert L. Oswalt and his family, since 2011 the Survey has administered a small grant program comparable in scope to that of the Endangered Language Fund. The Oswalt Fund supports well-designed small projects that seek to document endangered languages. Application deadlines for annual Oswalt Fund grants are announced in the Fall here.

Preservation

No language documentation project is worthwhile when its results are lost, or when they languish in a moldy closet or hot garage. We are committed to ensuring that documentary materials donated to us (whether collected in projects we sponsored or by other researchers) are preserved securely, in good condition, and with sufficient metadata to enable interested people to find them. All our paper materials are archived in a locked, climate-controlled room; most items are available for use by researchers, but especially fragile material is transferred to the Bancroft Library on campus. Original material deposited in digital form, and digital copies of paper originals, are stored on campus servers and are routinely backed up off-site. (The audio recordings deposited in the Berkeley Language Center, in many cases associated with paper materials archived in the Survey, are similarly preserved: originals are kept in a secure climate-controlled room, and digital copies are routinely backed up.)

Access and outreach

An essential part of our third mission is to find ways of making our collection available to people throughout the state (and world). Documentary material can be preserved for posterity, but it is useful only if people who want to use it can find it. It is essential, therefore, that items in our collection be easy to discover and as easy as possible to use. For indigenous language material a good access system is especially important, partly because of the importance language revitalization can have for cultural identity revival and partly because some users may lack the financial resources to come to Berkeley on extended research trips to visit archives.

2008 Breath of Life Workshop participants practicing uvular consonants
2008 Breath of Life Workshop participants practicing uvular consonants (Photo courtesy of Scott Braley)

To improve the discoverability of material in our collection, we have recently revised our metadata structure and catalog interface. Users can do searches by language or by person, and can easily find related material (on the same language, or associated with the same person). Our catalog incorporates a family tree of languages represented in the collection, so it is easy to discover material on related languages or dialects. And if there are associated audio recordings in the Berkeley Language Center, our records now show this and provide a convenient link.

An archive in Berkeley is inconvenient for anyone who lives elsewhere (and lacks a substantial research budget). We therefore see digitization as cultural repatriation: when it is complete, researchers from indigenous communities (and universities) will be able to use their offices as archival reading rooms, and the unique field notes, file slips, and other materials we preserve will be both fully accessible and physically safe. As of late 2009, though the project is far from complete, over 37,000 images from 117 items in the archive are available online. (Our archive contains over 2000 items in all.)