Snow goggles and rotten pears
Finding public records of anthropology online
by Celia Emmelhainz on
Here at PopAnth, you can read about why we believe in extraterrestrials, how your coffee habits affect farmers, why archaeologists want to study your trash bins, and how real money is actually pretend money.
But how is this research made? Well-known researchers have at times deposited their notebooks and video reels into restricted archives, while many other ethnographers have locked up or destroyed field notes to protect their informants.
But increasingly, anthropologists are starting to share our data—and even "live fieldnotes"—online, as with the Digital Archive of Japan's 2011 Disasters. In this post, I'll share some intriguing online libraries and archives, giving you tips on where to explore on your own!
Field records: Read early books and travel diaries
Hundreds of American librarians and curators have put together the Digital Public Library of America, which lets you search ten million historic books, images, and pamphlets with a single click.
Right now, you can view 4,000 objects from Berkeley's Hearst Museum of Anthropology, 200,000 items from the National Museum of Natural History, 1000 old anthropology books from HathiTrust, and 500 audio clips from the National Anthropological Archives. If you looked up the John Peabody Harrington papers, for instance, you can view his original fieldnotes on travel and languages from the early 20th century.
Across the pond, Europeana has digitized RWG Hingston's diary from Kenya and Pakistan, as well as other images and films in ethnography and anthropology. The British Library's Endangered Archives program similarly works to preserve fantastic primary sources from around the world.
And what about indigenous people who observe the west? A. M. Fernando is a native observer who came from Australia to London in 1929. His hand-scrawled notes have been digitized and transcribed by AIATSIS and shared here.
Material culture: View photographs and cultural objects
Photographs and images of objects are some of the easiest records to digitize. Check out the people and potsherds at the Anthropology Photographic Archive [Oceania], or the houses and agriculture in the Digital Archive of Research on Thailand.
You can see early expeditions to China, Mongolia, Mexico, and Siberia at the American Museum of Natural History. But my favorite are the features masks, clothes, sewing bags, charms, and snow goggles at the Smithsonian's Alaska Native Collections.
This thoughtful collection includes pictures, descriptions, and audio pronunciations for each piece of material culture. Better yet, community elders were included in developing this archive, and commented on each item's use and history.
It's unlikely you will get to Alaska in person to ask community leaders about their culture, so this is a great way to learn how people have thrived in extreme northern climates.
Linguistic anthropology: Learn about languages
The Archive of Indigenous Languages of Latin America includes audio and text, while the Ethnologue lets you know about the current status of rare and minority languages. Tirahi, for instance, is nearly extinct in Afghanistan, with only 100 speakers in a cultural community of 5000 people. Maps give further details.
Even better, Nuer Field Notes has digitized photos, slides, and letters from Eleanor Vandevort's linguistic research in Sudan. For instance, scanned cards note that guɛm means "poking around in people's affairs like one pokes around in the grass for turtle eggs." Surely we've all experienced that.
Performance and folklore: Listen and watch culture events
Listen to a Namyi flute player or watch the Nadun festival at Digital Himalaya. See video interviews with American civil rights activists at the Library of Congress, or listen to 400 interview segments with American workers at Working in Paterson.
For more video, the EVIA Digital Archive shares raw segments of music, dance, work, and cultural performance videos. After getting your account approved for research or teaching use, you can watch clips such as this dancer entertaining farm workers in Tanzania.
Biological anthropology: Meet your primate cousins
Want to know how your skeleton compares to that of a tiny Mouse Lemur? You're in luck! Biological anthropologists have put together eSkeletons to let you compare yourself with our closest primate friends.
The Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR) allows researchers, teachers, and curious members of the public to access site reports, field notes, and descriptions of archaeological sites from around America. For instance, notes uploaded from the Lake George Project [New York], include handwritten descriptions as excavation was in progress.
Some records are protected because the information within might endanger a research site or not respect human privacy. But publicly accessible records include this field diary written up on a typewriter.
The Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DiNAA) similarly provides a spatial index of excavations around America. And if that's not enough, the Penn Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology has shared 700 video clips. 1958 Tikal shows archaeologists flying into a field site in Guatemala. I'm not sure how else you could experience 1950s field research so directly!
Citizen science: Share what you know
Libraries, museums, and archives are working hard to share their collections online, but this takes time and money! Digital libraries are a shared effort between specialists, researchers, and the public. Researchers can help by organizing, securing, and archiving their field records—we'd hate to lose them.
And readers can help by visiting cultural institutions or supporting them financially. (If you're ever in the area, check out the anthropology library, anthropology museum, and folklore archive here at UC Berkeley!)
But even if you can't travel, you probably have hands. "Citizen archivists" help build online collections much more quickly, so that every citizen can benefit. You can tag photos, transcribe images, and subtitle videos at archives.gov, or create digital maps for the New York Public Library. The Royal BC Museum, Smithsonian, and Australian Museum all welcome your help in transcribing field records. If you or a relative enjoy reading old handwriting, this is a great hobby for your spare time.
Finally, share what you've learned. Tell your friends, or refer to digital libraries in your own work. And if you're looking for records that are hard to find, ask a librarian—that's what we're here for!
Digital libraries are a shared effort between specialists, researchers, and the public… and citizen archivists help build online collections much more quickly