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Award holder: Iain Walker

Host Institution: University of Oxford

Partner Institution: CNDRS

Project manager: Yakina Mohamed Djelane

Project start date: 20 September 2011

Project duration: 24 months

This project has received a grant of £51,658 from the British LIbrary Endangered Archives Programme.

The national sound archives of the Union of Comoros consists of approximately 1,000 magnetic audio tapes, stored at the Comorian national research centre (CNDRS) in Moroni. The lack of climate control in the storeroom means that these tapes are deteriorating rapidly and a number of them already show signs of physical degradation. In addition to extremes of temperature and humidity, in 2005 there was a volcanic eruption on the island and ash deposits accumulated on the tapes causing some damage.

The collection is a unique record of Comorian cultural practice and social history; the core of the collection was constituted in the last quarter of the 20th century by the founding director of the CNDRS, Damir Ben Ali, and his successors who, recognising the very real threat of loss of oral records, implemented a project to collect as much material as possible. His team conducted interviews throughout the country on oral tradition, anthropological and historical topics, and collected recordings of cultural performances, including songs, poetry and music. Many of the recorded practices and performances have disappeared, both under the influences of what might be termed modernisation and as a result of social changes during the revolution of 1975-1978. Likewise, not only has much of the oral history has been lost as an older generation disappears and the younger generation turns to radio and television, but written primary sources that could have provided material for historiographies of the early colonial period were largely destroyed during the same revolution. A lack of academic interest in the Comoros in the colonial period (and particularly prior to the second world war) means that these oral histories constitute almost the entire corpus of extant primary material on pre- and early colonial Comorian history; they are an extremely valuable and irreplaceable source for research on cultural practice and historical change. Those recordings that have been used and analysed in the past have proved to be unique and valuable sources of data.

Equipment will be purchased to treat and digitise the tapes and store both the ensuing digital and the surviving original tape archive. Most of the equipment will be purchased or supplied by the Swiss National Sound Archives (SNSA-Fonoteca), who will be acting as trainers and advisors to the project. Two experts from SNSA will travel to Moroni for a period of two weeks, where they will begin the digitising process. As they digitise they will be assisted by, and will train, two CNDRS sound archivists and local IT personnel.

The archive is now effectively closed to researchers and will undoubtedly remain closed until the material is digitised. Every tape will be examined, tested and the analog signal converted to digital and recorded on high resolution WAV files, according to IASA TC-04 guidelines. Those files will contain only what is extracted from a single tape or set of tapes, and they will be considered as the first generation “archive copy”.

The original archive may suffer damage during the digitisation process but every effort will be made to ensure the majority of the tapes will be preserved intact and they will subsequently be stored in a climate-controlled environment. The digital copies will be stored locally on hard disk in duplicate; one will feed the server and provide free local access to the files to scholars under the normal conditions of access to CNDRS archives while the second copy will serve as backup. A third copy will be transferred to the British Library. It is intended that the data will be accessible over the internet. Comorian bandwidth limitations currently make it unlikely that this archive will be hosted locally for international access, and it is expected that the catalogue and at least part of the online archive be hosted elsewhere. The equipment will remain with the CNDRS and will allow for the CNDRS to subsequently digitise the archives of Radio Comores at the end of the EAP project.

The Endangered Archives Programme is supported by Arcadia.

Read a report on the project launch


Comorian Sound Archives

Digitisation of the National Sound Archives of the Union of Comoros

photograph ©Iain Walker 2011