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Lecture | This Time for Africa! Series

Interdisciplinary aspirations and disciplinary archives: Losing and finding John M. Weatherby’s Soo language data

Friday 10 June 2022
This Time for Africa! series
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


As theorized in language documentation, archives serve to make research reproducible and to make primary data accessible for multiple audiences (Himmelmann 2006; Berez-Kroeker et al. 2018). Scholars in the emerging mid-20th century field of African history emphasized these same priorities. Mid-century Africanist historians assembled large text collections but failed in a clearly stated disciplinary project to preserve them in accessible archives.

This paper explores the relationship between institutional and social factors in data preservation through the story of audio recordings and field notes documenting Soo (Uganda: Kuliak/Nilo-Saharan) collected in the mid-20th century by Makerere University history PhD student John M. Weatherby. For decades, Weatherby struggled and failed to find an institutional home for his materials, which were nearly lost amid changing disciplinary trends. I encountered them only through informal social interactions in 2018 and have subsequently been depositing them in a language archive.

The slide of Weatherby’s data into obscurity shows how archiving is inherently a disciplinary practice. Institutions intending to preserve data rose and fell with changing disciplinary paradigms, but Weatherby’s data were preserved through personal relationships. Despite a common emphasis on technical and institutional initiatives for archiving, the relational contexts of legacy materials are central to their preservation

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