Open Access done right: Sung Tales from the Papua New Guinea Highlands

Most of us who have a connection with the Australian anthropological scene are familiar with the Australian National University’s E-Press. The press publishes open access, full-length, fully edited and peer reviewed works which are available in paper, html, for mobile, PDf, the whole lot. As someone who’s published with them before I’ve been impressed with their professionalism and as someone who works on topics frequently addressed by the press’s authors, I’m impressed by the quality of the content they produce. This month, the press helped solidify its reputation as an important scholarly publisher by releasing Sung Tales from the Papua New Guinea Highlands, edited by Alan Rumsey and Don Niles. This volume is a great example of how to do open access, and do it right.

Anyone who has spent any time in the highlands of PNG will have heard (or heard of) these lengthy, beautiful, and exceptionally elaborate chanted tales — they are a hallmark of the region and the people who specialize in performing them are well-known and admired for their abilities. We are talking like Iliad type tales here people: genuine epic poetry. And yet somehow they have never really achieved the attention that they deserve from researchers — I know that when Alan Rumsey asked me about sung tales in Porgera I was like: “uh yeah… they do that… it’s cool… uh.”

This book aims to fix all that by documenting and exploring this genre of performance. The story of how the thing got put together is pretty epic: a research project that took about a decade; interdisciplinary collaboration between anthropologists, linguists, and ethnomusicologists; the work of academics from around the world, Papua New Guinean bards, and Papua New Guinean academics. This is nothing if not collaborative ethnography. The result is a book that covers an area of hundreds of miles, a gaggle of language and ethnic groups, and includes a collection of tightly integrated texts.

The best thing about the volume is not just that it is free for download, but that the ANU E-Press’s website includes mp3s of these tales themselves . Check out, for instance, these brief recordings of bits of Melpa and Ipili sung speech. The site also includes a brief video of a man singing as well as transcripts of an interview that exists in somewhat edited form in the book itself. Anthropologists are often excited by ‘multimedia’ possibilities presented by ‘cyberspace’ but most experiments with multimedia come off as ungrounded in a solid research question or the needs of the argument — often they just appear included because multimedia is ‘the future’ (at least this is how people talked in the 90s). Here, in contrast, the open access online format enables the editors and authors to make the recordings an essential part of the book — and of course, to make them available to Papua New Guineans themselves, free of charge, as long as they have an Internet connection.

Because the volume is open access and subsidized (in ways I don’t quite understand) the authors have been able to realize their vision for this piece. There is little contribution to ‘theory’, it has not been written to appeal to undergraduates and assigned in class, it does not posture or attempt to be sexy. It is just a genuinely synthetic contribution to our knowledge of what humans are capable of. As a result it is an important piece of what George Marcus calls (somewhat disparagingly, it seems to me) the ‘ethnographic archive’. It is important, but would not have sold well. I am betting that it going to be read widely, however, now that it is released in this format.

Of course, the book is not perfect: not all of the papers hit the ball out of the park, one wouldn’t have minded perhaps a little more adventuresome discussion of some of the broader implications of the genre, I may just have a soft spot in my heart for these songs, perhaps some linguist who knows more than me will reveal that it’s shoddy through and through, etc. etc. But I really think this is an example of how open access and scholarly publishing dedicated to doing the right thing has produced a scholarly moment of real, albeit extremely specialized, value. Gratz to all involved.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Open Access done right: Sung Tales from the Papua New Guinea Highlands

  1. Rex,

    Thanks for posting this. I was instantly reminded of Stephen Feld’s (1990) Sound and Sentiment:Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression, which I read with great pleasure, wow, twenty years ago. I look forward to reading Sung Tales.

  2. Thanks Rex, I look forward to reading it. I lived in the highlands for two years and this is of great interest to me.

  3. this is impressive. thanks for posting this rex. these kinds of efforts really give me hope for the future of publishing in anthropology.

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