They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Oral tradition and libraries

Oral tradition and libraries

By Edgardo Civallero

Orality is an intrinsic part of human nature. Language and its free expression make humankind what it is. Without language, a good part of our cultures and of our identities as human beings wouldn't exist. There wouldn't be any socialization, or education, or even society (a structure built upon relationships generated by spoken words).

To deny orality's importance is to deny ourselves.

Written word wouldn't exist without the previous existence of the spoken word. Writing is a secondary, artificial and dependent system, as pointed out by many great linguists. I won't deny writing's great importance in civilizations' history. But I will not exalt it as a goddess. I simply put it in its real place, i.e. at the same level of orality. Maybe writing systems made possible the progress of a good number of cultures. But we shouldn't forget that a great part of humankind was condemned to forgetfulness: throughout history, just powerful people wrote, reflecting the winner's voice. Written words always meant "power", and power is not in everybody's hands. Orality is: it's popular, democratic, and it can be used by everybody having a basic command of their own language.

We shouldn't forget that, even if writing became the basis of many civilizations, thousands of them grew up and lived without it. To consider illiteracy a sign of "underdevelopment", "non-evolution" or "non-progress" is a deplorable, evolutionist attitude that leaded to the discrimination and the oblivion of a lot of people because they were unable to read or write. Orality is valuable and important. It's a treasure, a miracle, a part of us, of everyone. And it must be protected and preserved. A high percentage of human knowledge has never been written so far. Will we say that, because of this reason, it doesn't exist, that it isn't valuable? It's knowledge transmitted through the generations, and we are the depositaries of part of it. Will we consider it as an inadequate, poor, powerless mean, not worth of consideration, just because it's oral?

Orality is featured by its instability, but also by its richness, its complexity and its adaptability. It's a mean with its own features, and it shouldn't be undervaluated or discredited because it seems to be different or complicated. I repeat my question: will we consider the spoken word as inferior to written word just because texts were/are the source of power, development and security? It seems a poor attitude to me. Especially because the written word is as unstable as the oral one, as demonstrated by all the knowledge lost after a little spark in Alexandria, Sarajevo or Baghdad. Where is the power of Ninive or Pergamo? Where are the memories of those peoples, of those great authors who trusted in the "undeniable security" of the written word?

It turned into ashes long ago. Because paper can be as fragile as human memory.

To choose the safer option isn't always a good attitude in life. To depreciate and refuse the insecure option either. To generate proposals appreciating the real value of every option, of everything, complementing and bonding and even melting them in one single idea... that's something that looks wiser, more creative and more human.

Orality is a part of our memory, as demonstrated by thousands of universal cultures possessing extremely rich oral traditions, and by thousands of current programs of oral narrative, and thousands of groups of story-tellers working today, from here to Java. Are this poor people losing their time in a useless activity? Or maybe we are so blinded by the values we believe to be "safe" and "powerful", that we lost the capacity for detecting the importance and the value of the little big things?

Memory is built by speaking and repeating, not by writing. Memory is built by telling, by saying things, and the best way for learning something is to use the spoken word, not the text (as accepted by thousands of teachers, all around the world). Spoken word allows a richer expression that otherwise would look very limited by writing, as pointed out in early times by Greek philosophers (who knew the power of speaking very well).

If orality wouldn't be a part of the human memory, we Argentineans wouldn't know anything about our immigrant ancestors; peasant communities wouldn't remember their traditions; and aboriginal peoples wouldn't tell the cycles of Earth. And so on...

There's a material cultural heritage, and an intangible one, as declared by UNESCO since years ago. And this international organization has supported and encouraged the protection of orality and oral tradition, even in declarations with IFLA concerning public libraries. Maybe all of them are wrong?

We can't deny the value of oral tradition. It allows the understanding of our own culture, of the group and individual memory, and it also allows the creative use of the own language, something that is getting lost in a good number of literate societies (as a lot of High School language professors know).

If library is a memory-manager institution (and not a simple document-storage place), it should manage both aspects, the written and the oral one. It's a double labour: literacy can be promoted as well as orality, supporting the desires of the final users (this is our goal as librarians: to provide a service according to the needs of the community, from a grassroots development perspective). And when I speak about "promoting orality", I don't speak just about turn orality into audiovisual or written documents. I speak about creating spaces and support to the very expression of the spoken word, from the community and by the community.

The techniques of collection of oral tradition should be known by librarians, who are real memory-managers. This task is not a close field reserved to historians, sociologists or journalists. Maybe some museums do it... but I don't speak about museums: I speak about libraries. Maybe some "important" libraries do it, but they are the 5% of the whole number of libraries, and I am speaking about every library, specially the "small" community and public libraries, the ones which have a closer contact with people and their orality.

Orality shouldn't be pushed to writing. It should be enriched and complemented with writing, but never turned into it. That would be terrible. I have witnessed these processes and their outcomes, and the results just give an infinite sorrow: people who forget their traditions and their wisdom, their memories and their art, just because they were taught that the written texts are the basis of knowledge, are the only useful and valuable means, are the powerful tools for become members of the Global Society. This positivist, materialist perspective leaded thousands of cultures to lose their identity and to live in a kind of sociocultural limbo from where nobody will take them out.

I am far from condemning the written word. I just condemn the huge importance given to it, forgetting other means of expression and transmission of information. Writing is a valuable and beautiful tool... As beautiful and valuable as orality. A number of libraries are working in the support and promotion of oral tradition. Are they wrong? I don't think so. I think they are fulfilling their task. Their real task.