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 archive of paper materials and other analog media (now increasingly available online) with born-digital materials, ongoing documentation projects, and a commitment to making our resources, and the knowledge we are privileged to preserve, accessible to all people.

Documentation

Zachary O'Hagan and Antonina Salazar Torres, reviewing handwritten Caquinte stories, 2016
Zachary O'Hagan and Antonina Salazar Torres, reviewing handwritten Caquinte stories, Peru, 2016 (photo courtesy of Rachel Keynton)

The central mission of the Survey has always been language documentation, focusing 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, as well as physical and digital storage space for the 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.

Thanks to the generosity of the late Robert L. Oswalt and his family, since 2011 the Survey has administered a 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.

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. Born-digital materials, and digital copies of analog originals, are stored on campus servers and are routinely backed up off-site with Merritt, a digital preservation repository from the University of California Curation Center. Our archive is a member of the Digital Endangered Languages and Musics Archives Network (DELAMAN).

Access and outreach

Northern Pomo
Northern Pomo language camp, Redwood Valley Rancheria, CA, 2019 (photo courtesy of Edwin Ko)

An essential third part of our mission is to find ways of making our collection available to people throughout the 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 crucial, therefore, that items in our collection be easy to discover and as easy as possible to use. For Indigenous language materials, a good access system is especially important, partly because of the importance that 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.

Many of the materials held by the Survey and by other campus archives have been digitized and are available through the California Language Archive. We see digitization as cultural repatriation: researchers from Indigenous communities and universities are able to use their offices as archival reading rooms, and the unique field notes, file slips, sound recordings, and other materials we preserve will be both fully accessible and physically safe. As of September 2019, the California Language Archive indexes over 18,000 items on over 450 languages, with over 30,500 digital files.