The race against the clock to save rare recordings of Indigenous languages

Hundreds of hours of recordings are at risk of never being heard again. SBS News meets the archivists hoping to save them.

Hearing the words of her Yuin nation language being spoken by her ancestors decades ago was a powerful moment for archivist Narissa Timbery.

“For me, language is really, really important. It’s a part of who I am, it connects me to my people it connects me to my country, from where I come from," she told SBS News. 

“Words that I’d heard, hearing them being spoken all those years ago was like ‘wow, that’s the same language, they’re the same words being used’."

Narissa Timbery is passionate about connecting Indigenous people and communities with their records.
Source: SBS News

The voices of Ms Timbery’s community are among a treasure trove of Indigenous recordings contained on magnetic tapes by the National Archives of Australia (NAA).

But as the technology to play the old tapes becomes obsolete, time is running out to save thousands of hours of audio-visual recordings, some of which include rare Indigenous languages.

The archives must be digitised by 2025 or the precious material will be lost without being heard again.

One of the machines used to play the old magnetic tapes that will soon be inoperable.
Source: Supplied

“On those tapes, there may be items that have not been heard for many years so, the thought of losing something that was captured many years ago is quite frightening,” said Ms Timbery, who is an archivist at NAA.

"That may be the only one record of that particular thing being spoken about."

“It’s really important, it connects us to the old people speaking the language, just to hear the voices and the way words are being spoken.”

NAA director-general David Fricker said preserving the remaining 127,000 hours of material yet to be digitised is the archive's number one priority.

“I’m not on track and I’m very worried we’re going to run out of time and resources to get that done,” he said. 

“The machines won’t exist, the ones we have will have broken down, the people who understand the machines will have left the scene, retired.”

One of the machines that is still able to play the old magnetic tapes.
Source: Supplied

The issue has been examined as part of an independent review of the National Archives due to report next month.

Mr Fricker is calling for more funding and resources to speed up the digitalisation of the records he believes are vital to Australia’s reconciliation process.

'Key to reconciliation'

Exactly what is on each of the tapes remains a mystery with only a broad description given for a collection in most cases. What is known is the recordings were usually made by government agencies.

While they may be bureaucratic in nature, such as court proceedings, Mr Fricker said they provide vital clues to understanding Australia’s past.

“We now go back and realise that as part of the evidence that was given are stories about generations of occupation of a particular country, about customary practice and Indigenous language. There’s also information about ancestry and family relationships.

National Archives of Australia Director-General David Fricker is worried they will run out of time to preserve thousands of hours of recordings.
Source: SBS News

“Surprising information that helps us now, through the lens of the present, make much more informed decisions about who we are as a nation and where we’re going in the future.

“It’s just a treasure trove for us now to continue on this path of reconciliation in Australia.”

It’s just a treasure trove for us now to continue on this path of reconciliation in Australia.

- David Fricker, NAA

Being able to hear Indigenous languages as they were spoken decades ago is also key to work being done to revive them and teach younger generations.

“If you can hear it spoken back in the 1950s, you have that much more authenticity to understand the rhythm of the language, to pick up other words in between the ones you know.”

Complex relationship to records

There are calls to transform the ways Indigenous records are handled to enable greater access and even co-ownership by the communities they relate to.

Kirsten Thorpe, senior researcher at Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Research and Education at the University of Technology Sydney, said it is time to address barriers to accessing material held in the archives.

“[We're] talking about what are some of the protocols for access that may not have been considered, in what is a very western frame of looking at record keeping.”

While records provide valuable evidence of past policies and practices, that means they may contain racist and derogatory language.  

Narissa Timbery and David Fricker say the recordings provide sometimes surprising insights into Australia's Indigenous history.
Source: SBS News

“I think it’s a real inhibitor of access if you do engage with a catalogue or a description paints a really offensive picture of a community,” Ms Thorpe said.

“You don’t want the records to cause upset or harm or distress to people as they access them.”

She said the digitalisation of records presented the opportunity to proactively return them to relatives and communities in question.

“We need to look at new ways people can extract information from those institutions and use it in the right way back in their communities.”

They are issues the NAA is very mindful of.

“It’s hoped we may be able to connect the recordings to the people from whom those recordings come from,” Ms Timbery said.

But it’s not as easy as simply making it publicly available in their searchable collection.

She said records may contain personal or sensitive information about individuals and it’s crucial it is managed in a culturally-sensitive way and the appropriate people are granted access first.  

“It’s really being sensitive and aware as an organisation that these records can be quite sad and quite emotive.”

Calls for more Indigenous librarians

When Ms Timbery was working at a library on the NSW south coast she fielded many requests from people wanting to know more about the area’s Indigenous history or their family background.

The regular questions sparked her interest in becoming an archivist and making it easier for people to find the answers.

“'How do we navigate these systems because they’re really hard and they’re really complex?' And ever since then I’ve had a passion to connect people and communities with their record and to do it in a sensitive manner.”

As institutions become more aware of the need to preserve records and engage Indigenous communities in their management, she hopes more will follow in her footsteps.

Ms Thorpe also encourages young Indigenous people to consider careers in libraries.   

“Despite the stereotypes of being dark and dusty and quiet places, there’s a lot of really exciting work that is taking place and could take place in the future.”

NAIDOC Week is marked 7-14 July and celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. For more stories on NAIDOC celebrations around the country go to

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Published 14 July 2019 at 6:51am
By Rosemary Bolger