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Recording & Sharing Traditional Ecological Knowledge

This week I’ve spent a couple of days in Scotland with James Leach, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen working on ideas for recording and sharing Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in the field through hybrid technologies and tools. We are taking part in a symposium at the University of Goroka, Papua New Guinea (PNG) in late October, before travelling to Reite village on the Rai Coast (Madang Province) where James has done field work since the early 1990s.

James and I have been building on conversations we’ve had over the past 4/5 years, and on top of some earlier work together as part of the British Museum’s Melanesia project. A case study explores how we used Diffusion eNotebooks to record the experiences of two Reite villagers – Porer Nombo & Pinbin Sisau – when shown hundreds of objects in the BM ethnographic collection from their area. Bookleteer and the eBook formats proved highly adaptable and useful in this process, allowing us to record interactions on the fly – both in writing and in capturing photographs of the social interactions of the project. We used digital cameras and printed out small photos using a Polaroid PoGo printer to stick directly into the eNotebooks which, once complete, were scanned in and posted online. Some months later we also used bookleteer to print up a short run edition of the 4 eNotebooks which were used in conferences and taken back to the village.

Our conversations this week have focused around themes of process, notation and sharing. Papua New Guinea is perceived as very poor in western economic terms, yet abundant with culture and the natural world. There is a great deal of sensitivity about how indigenous knowledge – of plants, places, wildlife and culture – is both presented and shared. Who benefits? To what, if any, degree does sharing more knowledge help preserve the delicate environment from exploitation and extraction? Why and how local people might wish to record and share their own knowledge to be communicated to outsiders in ways that protect their culture and environment is at the core of this issue. What value, if any, might come to local people from annotations of their knowledge by outside ‘experts’, such as botanists and naturalists in identifying species? Might this lead to just further exploitation and depredations of natural resources?

James and Porer have already published a unique collaboration – Reite Plants – which mixes local knowledge of the flora around Reite village with social and cultural knowledge. It is also written in both English and Tok Pisin, the local creole language. This is seen as a model for working together to share knowledge that situates the plants within the lived culture of Porer’s village and at the same time fulfilling western demands for scientific classification, but without delving into complicated and thorny issues such as para-taxonomy or bio-prospecting.

James and I have been discussing how hybrids – such as bookleteer and the eNotebooks – can be used as part of a co-creative and co-designed process that enables people to use simple tools and technologies, especially ones that are readily available in PNG, to record and document what they know. Starting from the simplicity of the eNotebook format, we’ve been thinking about what kinds of process and social engagement with local people could be explored that would allow material to be created and collected in ways that allow further reflection and addition. We have been thinking of accretive processes that build up and layer the complexly interwoven customs, practices and traditions in ways that reflect the whole culture, not just individual elements that can quickly be consumed, Indigenous Public Authoring for Traditional Ecological Knowledge (IPATEK). Perhaps this itself might be another form of ritual, of patterning knowledge and experience through overlapping notations?

What excites me is the opportunity I have been offered to explore these ideas both in the context of the symposium and in Reite village itself. No doubt the ideas we have cooked up in Scotland will be transformed again and again as they evolve in our conversations and collaborations in PNG with both other thinkers and academics and local people who live within their own indigenous ‘knowledge’ and for whom its enactment is always immersed within the practice of their everyday lives.

case study

Case study – James Leach and the Melanesian Project at the British Museum

James Leach is an anthropologist at the University of Aberdeen who has conducted field-work in Papua New Guinea for approximately 17 years. I recently spoke to him by Skype to talk about a project which also involved two of his friends, Porer and Pinbin from the village of Reite, who had travelled to the UK in August 2009. Part of their visit to London included participating in the British Museum’s Melanesia Project. This project was designed to gain insight into the BM’s ‘largely unstudied’ Melanesian collections. Although I won’t get into to too much of the project’s overall aims and process (see both James’ work and the BM link for more details), part of the project involved inviting people from different areas of Melanesia to provide context about the objects in the collection by explaining how these objects are made, are used, and what their significance is. The exchange also represented an opportunity for the BM to build new relationships with the populations from where these objects originated.

Sample project: Melanesia Project

According to James, both Porer and Pinbin knew a lot about materials and the ways in which some of these objects were made which meant that the exchange could lead to some fascinating insights. Having worked with James in the past, they were also familiar with how to work with anthropologists.

As part of the exchange, James invited Giles Lane to drop by and demonstrate how to use the eBooks to record the event. Giles showed them all how to put the eBooks together and also brought a small portable Polaroid printer that could quickly and easily print digital pictures in a small format that could then be glued onto the eBook pages.

This was certainly a case of using the eBooks to capture information (see here for previous post where I introduce what I mean in by this) – in this case James described using the eBooks as a way to produce a realtime record that involved “capturing the moment of what we were doing and what we were seeing”. Representatives of the BM were also recording the exchange but using the eBooks served as a complimentary archive of what had happened. While the exchange was taking place, James would write down some of what Porer and Pinbin were saying in both English and Tok Pisin next to the images glued down in the eBooks. The addition of the eBooks to the process was partly challenging for James because it involved an additional set of tasks in an already hectic and brief exchange. Nevertheless, James felt that it proved to be a positive addition to the session because it provided a better record of the process of the exchange itself. He felt that although other methods for collecting and presenting information were better suited to the documentation of the knowledge being imparted of the objects by his two friends, the way in which the eBooks were used provided a simple, quick and accessible way of sharing what had taken place during the meeting.

Later on, the eBooks were re-scanned and subsequently reprinted into the professionally printed and bound version of the eBooks. James then distributed copies of the new books in Reite as well as at the local University in Papua New Guinea, and other regional institutions who were interested in what they had been doing. The eBooks were useful for giving people a feel for what had taken place, particularly for people who were unfamiliar with anthropology as a discipline.

Challenges, recommendations and suggestions

James used a wonderful way of describing his work as an anthropologist as being comprised of “moments”. He felt that the eBooks were used at the right moment in the process of conducting this type of research. Although he was unsure as to how this type of practice could fit in other parts of his work, he could see how this process would be helpful in situations requiring the documentation of how people “respond to images or information for themselves”.

He also suggested that as objects in themselves, the professionally bound versions of the eBooks were useful as a way to disseminate general information about the exchange:

[…] As something to give people, they’re an extremely nice thing. People are very keen. I also took some to an anthropology conference before I went [to Papua New Guinea] and would show them to people and they’d immediately say “Oh, is that for me?” People kind of like them. They’re nice little objects.”

However, since many people of Papua New Guinea don’t have access to Internet, resources like Bookleteer or the Diffusion website proved to be significantly less of an advantage for distributing this information (they obviously can’t download a copy of the eBook).

I want to come back to the way James used the idea of “moments” to describe his work and apply it to the way in which the eBook was designed and used. We could say that each project I have described to date was composed of a series of moments and that nested within these projects was the eBook component which in itself was composed of its own series of moments. In reference to my previous post on the distinction between capturing and publishing, the trajectory of how eBooks were designed and used in some of these projects was composed of both capturing and publishing moments. For example, the way in which the eBook was used on the Melanesia Project included both a capturing moment as part of the exchange with the British Museum and a publishing moment in which Giles and James printed-out scanned copies of the original eBooks and made them available online or passed hardcopies out to people who were interested in learning more about the project (or, in some cases, who just wanted to get their hands on a free neat little object).

These series of moments were significant because they each involved different challenges and successes. In James’ case, it seemed both the capturing and publishing moments proved valuable – in the case of the former as a way to capture “the moment of what we were doing and what we were seeing” during the exchange, in the case of the latter as a way to distribute printed copies of the eBooks. But both capturing and publishing in this particular case also faced challenges that suggested there were some additional key moments that made-up an eBook’s trajectory as part of a project. Here are two moments that I want to add to describe an eBook’s trajectory:

Appropriation: James had only a cursory knowledge of how the eBooks worked before the exchange took place. In other cases, (for example see Ruth Sapsed’s work with Cambridge Curiosity and Imagination) we saw how people had attended “Pitch-up and Publish” events as a way to test the eBooks and decide whether or not they could fit into the way these people executed their projects. For the Melanesia Project, James took the risk of adding the eBooks as an extra element to the project in part because he trusted Giles’ work and his abilities to adapt the eBooks to these particular circumstances. In this case, therefore, moments of appropriation and capturing took place at the same time. I will therefore use appropriation to describe how people decide the way in which eBooks relate to their pre-existing practices for capturing and publishing information.

Design and printing: It may seem that “design and printing” and “publishing” should be categorised as part of the same moment. The reason for making the distinction is that I want to highlight how the physical process of composing the eBook’s pages and physically making the eBook, whether it be printing it out or cutting and folding its pages into a notebook, are distinct from the publishing category I defined earlier. Both capturing and publishing necessarily involve designing and printing an eBook. But the way in which they are designed and printed and the way in which such a design will be evaluated as part of the project will likely be very different.

Of course, in making-up these four distinct analytical categories, I may be over-emphasising distinctions between moments that are in fact all bundled-up and confused in time and space. But the reason for making these distinctions is so that I can begin to develop a typology of how eBooks are part of all of these very different kinds of projects.

Next time, I’ll examine the Diffusion website in greater detail.