Oral histories shared online

New Web site gives access to previously text-only academic journal
Sunday, October 8, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:54 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

John Foley, director of MU’s Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, acknowledges that listening to an epic South Slavic poem online isn’t for everyone.

But for those who study oral history, technology is providing a way to experience these stories like never before.

“It’s a very exciting time for us,” Foley said.

The center launched an online version of its academic journal, “Oral Tradition,” on Sept. 19. Researchers now have free access to searchable text of the current issue and four years of back issues. The center hopes to have every issue available online in six to eight months.

The new technology also provides opportunities text doesn’t. Researchers can send in audio, video and photos from their fieldwork to supplement their articles. In the current issue, these “e-companions” include photos of dance in Java and audio clips of North India art music.

For centuries, cultures have shared their history and beliefs through oral tradition. Storytelling became a way to hand down identity and meaning from generation to generation in the absence of writing systems.

With the help of the Internet, scholars will now be able to share and promote these oral traditions across the world.

In an e-mail to researchers and subscribers, Foley, who is Curators’ Professor of English and Classical Studies at MU, wrote that the journal “entered a new chapter in its existence as an international and interdisciplinary forum for the study of worldwide oral traditions and related forms.”

The center and journal were founded in 1986 to provide scholars in the field a way to communicate with each other. Outside the West, however, the price and difficulty of access to the journal was a problem.

“Ironically, the places with a history of oral tradition couldn’t get the journal,” Foley said.

The project to move “Oral Tradition” online took almost two years. In less than a week, the Web site had 3,000 unique visitors from six continents and more than 40 countries, according to Web-tracking software installed on the site.

One visitor was Sabir Badalkhan, a researcher from Pakistan now working in Italy.

“I am sure my colleagues and friends in Pakistan and India will rejoice from this news as they can’t afford subscribing to academic journals published in the West and can’t benefit from them,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Foley’s announcement specifically encouraged people to contribute to the journal. “Already we have 10 to 12 submissions from places like India we never would have had before,” he said.

Foley is pleased with the encouraging start and said he looks forward to facilitating the conversation between the journal and scholars in the field.

“We’re not just sitting on a treasure trove and letting them in,” he said. “They’re sitting on a treasure trove of oral traditions, and they’re letting us in.”

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