Iowa Digital Library adds interactive collection of Madurese folk tales

The University of Iowa Libraries and a UI linguistics scholar have taken an important step toward preserving the culture of an often overlooked Indonesian ethnic group while at the same time opening worldwide access for students and scholars interested in delving deeper into the study of the Madurese language and culture.

William Davies, UI professor of linguistics and one of the world’s leading scholars on Madurese language, has completed the Madurese Storytellers digital collection, which features storytellers from the Island of Madura telling traditional stories along with accompanying English or Indonesian subtitles.

Davies and Surachman Dimyati, a professor at Universitas Terbuka in Jakarta and a UI alumnus, recorded native storytellers performing “carèta ra’yat Madhurâ,” traditional Madurese folk tales and historical narratives. These creation tales, tales of the introduction of Islam to the island, and love stories shed light on the historical and cultural development of the Madurese.

The Madurese are indigenous to Madura, a small island located a few miles off the northeast coast of Java, the main Indonesian island (with a population of more than 100 million.) Government census figures from 2005 put the Madurese population at roughly 7 million, while other estimates range up to 15 million. Regardless of the precise number, the Madurese language is the fourth most widely spoken language in Indonesia, the fourth most populous country in the world. Despite this, the Madurese language and people are not widely studied, in large part due to negative stereotyping by the ethnic majority groups in the country.

This lack of study of the Madurese and their language has left little textual material available to scholars or even to the Madurese people themselves. What exists of original Madurese folk and historical narratives are largely disparate manuscripts held by some individuals or in small collections at regional museums throughout Madurese-speaking areas.

The new digital archive includes an interactive interface to allow the Madurese videos to be viewed with English and Indonesian subtitles. Verbatim transcripts can also be viewed in English, Indonesian, Madurese, and morpheme-by-morpheme glosses used for linguistic analysis. The project is ongoing and as more narratives are recorded and transcribed, they will be added to the collection.

As is the case with folk tales from any tradition, tales can give insights into the roles of men and women, the social hierarchy in society at large, the behavioral expectations for children, values, belief systems, anxieties and fears, and much more that was considered important in society.

The historical narratives not only help keep the language and culture of the Madurese vital, but the video and accompanying text in the electronic archive make these primary source materials directly accessible to scholars in the U.S. and internationally. Researchers in linguistics and across the humanities will benefit from the availability of these unique materials. This multimedia archive embraces new methods of scholarly communication by creating and delivering a resource that would not be possible through traditional publishing modes.

This project has been funded by a generous grant from the Toyota Foundation, as well as the US Department of Education (through a Fulbright-Hays award) and several UI programs. Institutional support in Indonesia has come from Universitas Kristen Petra in Surabaya and Universitas Atma Jaya in Jakarta, as well as Kementerian Negara Riset dan Teknologi and Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Indonesia.

Davies’ project was a UI Libraries’ Creative Scholarship Innovation Award winner in 2010, which provided modest support for a graduate assistant and included a project team of librarians and technologists.

The video and transcriptions are the latest edition to the Iowa Digital Library, which features more than 400,000 digital objects created from the holdings of the UI Libraries and its campus partners. Included are illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, fine art, political cartoons, scholarly works, audio and video recordings, and more. The UI Libraries is a staunch supporter of new forms of scholarly publishing, digital humanities, data curation, and open/linked data.