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With an Eye on the Future, First Nations in Canada Are Switching From Audio Cassettes to Digital

Audio cassette digitization workshop. Photo provided by the UBC Library and used with permission from Indigitization.

While not quite obsolete, audio cassettes are losing their appeal as long-term storage solutions of sound recordings. Many First Nations communities across British Columbia, Canada, are in possession of hundreds of cassette tapes filled with hours and hours of audio recordings of elder stories, traditional songs, and other key elements of their culture. Given this shift away from the analog technology, they are concerned that much of this knowledge may be lost if they don't come up with strategies to transfer their contents to digital formats.

A project called Indigitization has stepped in to providing funding and training for these First Nations communities to digitize those recordings as a way to preserve them for future generations. This collaborative project between the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre, the First Nations Technology Council, and three First Nations communities — Heiltsuk, Ktunaxa, and ‘Namgis — created an online toolkit with step-by-step instructions for communities interested in undertaking the digitization process.

Among the sections contained in the toolkit include digitization best practices and standards, instructions on adding metadata, as well as additional tips on digitizating photographs and maps.

Indigitization logo created by Alison O. Bremner, a Tlingit artist. Used with permission by the Indigitization project.

This grants program makes funding available to First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities to pay for equipment, digitization technical staff, and travel to and from trainings. Five rounds of funding have been completed and a sixth call for proposals recently closed in March 2017. Examples of projects funded by the Indigitization Grant Program include funds awarded to:

  • the Tsilhqot’in National Government to digitize “Tsilhqot’in Elder interview cassette recordings dating back to 1999-2000 an estimated 400 cassettes. Elder interviews are in the Tsilhqot’in/Chilcotin language, sadly some of those elders are no longer with us today”
  • the Hupacasath First Nation to digitize “83 audio cassettes containing over 240 hours of oral history from their elders. The audio tapes contain interviews with elders about land use, and stories of Hupacasath legends passed on from generation to generation.”

While digitizing will help these communities preserve this information, it does not automatically mean that it will be uploaded to the internet for public access. Another component of the toolkit is providing information on copyright, intellectual property, and different types of licenses to consider, but the Indigitization project makes it clear that “the decision regarding public access to any digitized information rests entirely with each First Nation.”

The project also put on a “Futures Forum” conference held in June 2016, which “brought together an emerging network of community-based information professionals and practitioners, academics, and a wider community of specialists who work to support context-appropriate information practices within Indigenous communities.” A summary of the panels and speakers can be found in the Stories from the Forum section.

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