World Oral Literature Project

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World Oral Literature Project logo.

The World Oral Literature Project is "an urgent global initiative to document and disseminate endangered oral literatures before they disappear without record".[1] Directed by Dr Mark Turin and co-located at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, at the University of Cambridge and Yale University, the project was established in January 2009.[2]

Primary objective[edit]

The World Oral Literature Project provides small grants to fund the collecting of oral literature, with a particular focus on the peoples of Asia and the Pacific, and on areas of cultural disturbance.[3] In addition, the Project hosts training workshops for grant recipients and other engaged scholars.[4] The World Oral Literature Project also publishes oral texts and occasional papers, and makes collections of oral traditions accessible through online media platforms such as Cambridge Streaming Media Service and DSpace.


Fourteen funded oral literature fieldwork and documentation projects[5] have been successfully completed between 2009-2013.

Online collections[edit]

The World Oral Literature Project collects data gathered by grantees and anthropology fieldworkers as well as historic collections. This data is primarily audio and visual files that are either born digital or are digitised by the Project. This material is archived using DSpace and, where culturally appropriate, disseminated to the public through the World Oral Literature Project websites and streaming media services.[6]

Occasional Paper series[edit]

An Occasional Paper series was set up by the World Oral Literature Project to allow for the fast dissemination of research findings and methodological considerations in the collection of oral literature. The aim is that the series will allow scholars and local researchers to disseminate their work and data sets through a peer-review process. These papers are available as a free download in PDF format.

Papers published by the World Oral Literature Project and Open Book Publishers:

  • Faroese skjaldur: An endangered oral tradition of the North Atlantic by Dr Stephen Pax Leonard, a Research Fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.[7]
  • The Sabah Oral Literature Project by George N Appell, Ph.D,[8]
  • The Epic of Pabuji ki par in Performance by Dr Elizabeth Wickett.[9]
  • From Oral Literature to Technauriture: What’s in a Name? by Professor Russell Kaschula and Mr Andre Mostert.[10]
  • The UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger: Context and Process by Dr Christopher Moseley.[11]
  • Encyclopaedia of Literatures in African Languages by Ursula Baumgart and Marie Lorin.[12]


Researchers at the World Oral Literature Project have compiled a database of language endangerment levels, including references to collections and recordings of oral literature that exist in archives around the world.[13] Data on language endangerment are drawn from the online Ethnologue, the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and from the work of conservation biologist Professor William Sutherland in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge.

The database is free for public use, and is designed to be easily searchable.

Board members[edit]

The Executive Board of the World Oral Literature Project is chaired by Sir Charles Chadwyck-Healey. Board members are Professor Alan Macfarlane, FBA; Professor Barry Supple, CBE, FBA; Gillian Tett and Stefan Kosciuszko. The World Oral Literature Project Advisory Board[14] is an international network of experts who have agreed to give the Executive Board meaningful help.


On 15–16 December 2009, the World Oral Literature Project held its first annual workshop, with a focus on Asia and the Pacific, at CRASSH, University of Cambridge. It brought together established scholars, early career researchers and graduate students with indigenous researchers, museum curators, archivists and audio-visual experts to discuss strategies for collecting, recording, preserving and disseminating oral literatures and endangered narrative traditions.[15]

The 2010 workshop was held on Friday 10 and Saturday 11 December. It examined some of the key issues around the dissemination of oral literature through traditional and digital media. Building on discussions around orality and textualisation, participants reflected on the politics of ownership of cultural recordings that are increasingly born digital or even birthed directly into an archive. Ethnographers, field linguists, community activists, curators, archivists and librarians exchanged ideas at this second workshop.

The keynote speaker and principal discussant was Professor John Miles Foley from the University of Missouri.[16]

The 2012 workshop, entitled 'Charting Vanishing Voices: A Collaborative Workshop to Map Endangered Oral Cultures', was held at the CRASSH, Cambridge on Friday 29 and Saturday 30 June.[17]

This practical workshop brought university-based researchers in anthropology, geography and linguistics into conversation with representatives from international agencies and organisations that aggregate and disseminate large holdings of ethnographic and linguistic data. Through brief presentations and extended discussions, participants explored innovative ways of visualising cultural and linguistic diversity and shared appropriate techniques and tools for representing endangerment, both cartographically and geospatially.

Press coverage[edit]

The University of Cambridge Office of External Affairs and Communications released a press statement about the project on 27 August 2009.

The World Oral Literature Project has received widespread international media coverage, including the following articles and radio and television interviews:

See also[edit]


External links[edit]