Community-Based Methods for Recording Oral Literature and Traditional Ecological Knowledge

The following methods were developed for the Sabah Oral Literature Project. These methods have resulted in a very productive and extensive library of oral literature, which is continually being added to. This approach will also be used in the Bhutan Oral Literature Project of the Firebird Foundation for Anthropological Research. These methods are recommended for use by those obtaining Research Grants in Oral Literature and Traditional Ecological Knowledge from the Firebird Foundation. However, they always are subject to revision and modification dependent on the cultural and political context.


  1. Lead Collector. A lead collector (hereafter LC) is needed to guide the collection of oral literature. He/she also has to gather ethnographic data so that he/she can organize the development of a cultural dictionary of the indigenous language (see Menu, Methodological Papers in which this is discussed). This is critical so that the context of oral literature and the figurative language used in the texts may be properly interpreted. Consequently, he/she should learn as much about the culture as possible so that he/she can advise the project and appraise the results.
  • The Lead Collector is responsible for developing and paying the local team who will do most, if not all, of the collection and transcribing (No. 2 below). The LC is also responsible: (a) for working with the team to develop a list of the various forms of oral literature and the types of traditional ecological knowledge; (b) for preparing a catalogue of oral literature recorded based on the classification the society uses; (c) for supplying the local team with funds or gifts to pay the sources of oral literature; and (d) for providing recording and transcribing equipment.
  • One of the principle responsibilities of the Lead Collector is to prepare a phonemic alphabet for the language or finding a linguist who would be willing to do it. This is critical for a faithful transcription of texts. The LC is to ensure that all recordings are properly deposited in a library of oral literature at a respected institution. He or she is also responsible for making the recordings available to the members of the local community, if they want to have them and if the source of any particular text gives his/her permission to do so.
  • The success of recording the full inventory of oral literature depends on the skills of the Lead Collector in selecting the members of the local field team who are committed to the work. It is not infrequent that the first individuals looking for a paying position, such as with the team, tend to be opportunistic. They do not last as they are not really interested in recording and preserving oral literature. It sometimes takes time to find those who are concerned about their cultural heritage.
  1. Recruiting a Collection Team. A team of individuals from the local community is to do the collection and transcription of the oral literature. This team is salaried. Individuals exterior to the culture may not realize who are the best sources for oral literature and the best way to approach them. These choices are to be made by the team members themselves with advice from the Lead Collector.
  • The team should consist of 1 person to do the recording and at least 1 or maybe 2 elder members of the community who know which individuals are the most knowledgeable in the oral literature and ecological knowledge. The function of the elder members is not only to direct the LC to important sources. They also should be present at all recordings of sources to ensure that the individual being recorded is not stinting on the text and to alert the collector to any deviations or deceit. They can inform the collector as to whether a source being recorded is withholding portions of texts. Some sources may feel that by holding back sections of a ritual text it will preserve its efficacy and ritual power.
  • The function of the younger member of the team is to manage the recording equipment. He or she should also have the skills to do the transcriptions of the oral texts or the capacity to be trained to do so. This is important as certain linguistic features may be overlooked by an external transcriber. For this position on the team it is important to locate someone who has certain innate linguistic and analytical skills and an interest in the language and the literature. It is helpful if this team member has had some schooling.
  • The oral texts recorded may also contain important ecological knowledge as explained in Menu article “ Traditional Ecological Knowledge”. For further collection of ecological knowledge, those individuals who are skilled in aspects of the environment are temporarily added to the team. There may be those who know the forest through long experience in using it. There may be those skilled in medicinal plants, or edible wild plants, and so forth.
  • The composition of the team should be such that it can continue recording material when the LC is not present in the field. It can be developed to do so as an independent research team on its own.
  1. The Collection of Texts. To develop a general theory of oral literature and the processes involved, to understand how the oral literature is developed and managed in the society the same texts from the same individual should be recorded at different times, several years apart. The same texts, particularly ritual texts, should also be recorded from different individual practitioners within the speech community. These texts should be recorded from practitioners in other villages of the same ethnic group. This approach will provide information on how texts are memorized, how they maintain their structure and content, and the degree to which individual creative forces are at work. It is also important to record from whom the texts were learned and the kin relationship between teacher and learner.
  • This method of recording texts may reveal to what extent there are cultural borrowings from neighboring ethnic groups including from those with a different language. If there are ritual texts that are sung, try recording the text first without singing and then with singing. It will be easier to transcribe and translate the recording without the singing.
  1. Recording Texts. Do not record texts in the presence of representatives from the government or other authority figures. They may inhibit the recitation of the full text or cause the source of the text to refuse to perform a certain text or admit they even know of it.
  • At the beginning of the recording ask the source to state that he/she agrees to have the text recorded and translated into English. At the conclusion of the recording ask the source to state any restrictions on the use of the text or access to the text (for more information on this see Methodological Papers in Menu for article on collection issues and suggestions). A bound field journal should be kept of all recording sessions.
  1. Payment of sources. Individuals who are recorded are not paid for narratives, stories, myths, legends, historical narratives, religious texts, etc. If the recording results in the source suffering economic loss from giving up time working in the fields or other forms of work, they may be given gifts or reimbursed for their loss of economic productivity. However, if the texts collected from sources are used in performances for which the source is paid or if the source receives remuneration from teaching the texts to others, then reasonable gifts to compensate the source may be given. These may include, in part, money. It is important never to change the relationship into a commercial one where the team or researcher is directly paying to record texts. Thus, it is a mistake to pay sources directly on a per diem basis. Gifts are more appropriate. There are two reasons for this. First, the payment of gifts is to encourage sources to become involved in the project and come to realize that the work is also for the service of the local community itself. Secondly, direct payment of cash for a recording can lead to creating new texts, corrupted texts solely for the remuneration. For example, there is the experience of the Australian anthropologists Ronald and Catherine Berndt. They paid individuals in Papua New Guinea for recording stories of a sexual nature. Richard Salisbury, of McGill University, (per. com.) has pointed out that many of these stories were apocryphal. They were made up to earn money.
  2. Transcribing of recordings. This is the responsibility of a member of the local recording team, usually the younger member who has had some education. He or she should be knowledgeable in the language and have the skills to listen to recordings and transcribe them faithfully according to the agreed upon orthography. See in Menu Methodological Papers in which the article “Collection Issues and Suggestions” provides additional information on recording sessions; also see in the Methodological Papers the two articles “Codes for Recording” and “ Codes for Transcription and Translation”.
  3. Archiving the Recordings and Transcriptions. Preserving the material in a reliable institution is important. Frequently, the indigenous group from which the material has been recorded does not have the resources to preserve these materials. They should be put in a library or a museum that has interests in this subject. They can also be archived with the Firebird Foundation or some other reliable institution. This is the responsibility of the Lead Collector. It is important to deposit the texts in at least two different places for safety.
  4. Cataloging the Texts. The texts should be catalogued first following the indigenous or local method of classification. Then, where relevant, they should be cross catalogued according to the social entities, i.e., social group, work group, hamlet, agricultural group, etc., that they provide a charter for. For individuals, they should also be catalogued according to their life stages as the local people perceive them.
  5. Translation of the Texts. This is one of the most time consuming and difficult tasks. If the LC is not sufficiently skilled in the language or does not have the time to do the translations, he/she must depend on a member of the local community who has some knowledge of English to help. Frequently, these are younger individuals who do not control the traditional figurative speech in the local language. They may also not be that fluent in English to understand the subtleties of English to do a translation faithful to the original meaning.
  6. Cultural Dictionary. This is critically important for translating texts and understanding them. Many sources, particularly younger ones, may no longer understand the traditional forms of figurative speech used in the texts. The building of a cultural dictionary also depends on the texts themselves to provide new entries and to serve as checks and/or elucidation of the meanings of entries to the dictionary. The construction of such a dictionary depends on whether older sources are still available to explain the meaning of the traditional forms of speech and the contexts of the texts (see in Menu Methodological Papers the two articles “A Cultural Dictionary for Translation and Exegesis of Texts” and “Rungus Metaphorical and Poetic Phrases”).
  7. It may be necessary to bring in an ethnobotanist or a biologist to help identify correctly the plants and animals that appear in the texts.
  8. Obligation to the Community. There is an argument that researchers are taking something away from the community and that they should be adequately compensated for this in some way. This ignores the complex social psychology of the interaction. Many sources feel honored to have their narratives and other texts considered important enough to be recorded by a representative from the urban centers. Also, this interaction is a two way event. Members of the local community are learning a lot from the researcher while the researcher is learning about the community. But in some cases different societies warrant more consideration, such as providing a library of the recorded material for their use. All this is context dependent. Not all societies have the facilities or the knowledge to manage a library of recordings. However, if the Lead Collector begins to feel that he/she is taking away from the community, he/she probably is. If so, he/she then does not have the proper attitude of honoring these beautiful creations and those who carry on these traditions. This work is not to provide coups for academic advancement. But it is to preserve the incredibly important aesthetic creations and historical data for the societies that have created them and eventually for the world to appreciate them. Furthermore, the societies we are interested in are usually being disrespected and denigrated by the members of the superior culture and being forced to change. The frame of reference of the Lead Collector should be that of preserving texts of incredible importance both aesthetically and historically for a society that is rapidly changing and forgetting these texts. This helps raise the level of respect by outsiders for the members of the community and their culture. In turn, growing respect from outsiders helps the members of the community to view their culture in positive terms and appreciate it. Respect for and appreciation for their culture by the members thwarts acceptance of the negative stereotypes being forced on them by outsiders.



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