Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Anthropology. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 03 February 2023

Participatory Design of Language and Culture Archiveslocked

Participatory Design of Language and Culture Archiveslocked

  • Christina WassonChristina WassonUniversity of North Texas


Online archives to preserve and share Indigenous language and culture materials emerged in the 1990s and 2000s. They were, in part, a response to concerns about Indigenous language and culture loss that gained prominence during that time period, both in Indigenous communities and in fields such as anthropology and linguistics. From an Indigenous perspective, language and culture were central to community members’ identities and exercise of sovereignty. The development of online archives was also facilitated by technology advances in the 1990s and 2000s, including more sophisticated online platforms for storing and sharing information, broader access to the internet, and digital recording technologies.

Prior to the development of online archives, traditional brick-and-mortar archives had a long history of collecting language and culture materials from Indigenous communities. However, they operated in a colonial context in which their practices contributed to the subjugation of Native peoples. In response, the 1970s and 1980s saw a rise in tribal archivists and Indigenous approaches to managing Indigenous materials and collections. Concerns to treat Indigenous materials appropriately and with respect have continued with the development of online archives. One focus has been Indigenous data sovereignty.

Some online archives have focused more on language and some have focused more on cultural heritage. The field of documentary linguistics has been highly active in developing language archives, with a particular concern for endangered languages. For example, Endangered Languages Archive (ELAR), Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC), Archive of the Indigenous Languages of Latin America (AILLA), and The Language Archive (TLA) all include data from a large number of different languages. A smaller group of anthropologists has engaged with the development of cultural heritage archives. Anthropologists have also critiqued the colonial logics of traditional archives and theorized what a “postcolonial archive” might look like. Some cultural heritage archives have started to enact these new principles. At the same time, Indigenous communities have developed their own community-based archives, often focused on meeting the needs of community members.

Although Indigenous community-based archives have generally had a solid understanding of the needs of their users, archives that collect materials from a large number of communities have not always conducted user research. A user-centered design approach to archives was initiated through a 2016 workshop funded by the US National Science Foundation. In addition, there has been a trend to integrate language and culture materials into combined archives. Participatory design may be the most appropriate approach for archive development because it recognizes and honors the sovereignty of the Indigenous peoples whose materials are included in an archive. One example of an ongoing participatory design process for an archive is a collaboration between Christina Wasson’s research team and four Indigenous communities in Northeast India.

Language and culture archives offer opportunities for design anthropologists to engage in a more participatory process than is possible in most private sector work. Many archives, museums, and libraries would be open to hiring people with this expertise.


  • Applied Anthropology

You do not currently have access to this article


Please login to access the full content.


Access to the full content requires a subscription