Oral tradition


Oral repositories deserve special consideration not only for their special format, their complex and unstable reality and their characteristics of collection, storage and dissemination, but also for the valuable information they convey. Sometimes, they reflect the opinion and experiences of minority and excluded sectors of society, and therefore have an added value: to be "the voice of those who have no voice", the only means and the only reality that have these forgotten or marginalized social actors to be heard and, in this way, to be remembered and considered.

On the other hand, in a globalized world where identities are mixed and lost, orality –which links people more intimately with family, social and ethnic groups– remains an important element for self-recognition, to understand the own origin and not to lose sight of the past and the present to which one belongs.

There is a huge debt, on behalf of the library and information sciences, to orality, a debt that is slowly coming to fruition with interesting proposals from different disciplines in different parts of the world. We need to be aware of the great responsibility that this possession demands, and the immediacy and urgency of the demand. For these little treasures, these realities with life and their own brilliance, are threatened, day by day, by the silent touch of oblivion.

Although marginalized, oral tradition has continued living/surviving in societies without writing, as well as in those that have been able to develop written notation. The modernity that characterizes our time, and the increasingly preponderant place that is given to writing has created a new context, that annihilates the dynamics of its reproduction and causes critical ruptures in its creation, its management and its transmission to present and future generations.

It has often been said that oral tradition is dead. In addition to the power of writing, it has enemies as powerful as the mass media. Bernard Dadié, a writer from Ivory Coast, complained back in 1983 [1] when he verified that nothing is told anymore because of the lack of courage or the desire to avoid to turn on the TV. The Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane, analyzing the role of the school (another enemy of orality, an insidious tool to install oblivion) wondered in his famous novel "The Ambiguous Adventure" of 1961: "Ce qu'on apprend vaut-il ce qu'on oublie? " [2].

But oral tradition has, nowdays, a way of revitalizing itself, thanks to new multimedia technologies. The new era opened by ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) offers the possibility of transforming and multilocalizing the oral tradition. The intimate and dynamic combination of text, sound and image allows media to expose oral traditions in all forms of cultural expression. The symbiosis of the text, the gestures that accompany it and its material and human dimension are thus presented coherently.

Cheikh Hamidou Kané answered his question of 1961 about thirty years later, in his second novel, "The Guardians of the Temple" (1995): "...il est possible d´apprendre sans oublier, et même d´apprendre à nouveau ce que a eté oublié".

It is possible to learn without forgetting, as well as learning again what has been forgotten.


[1] Colloquium on "oral tradition, source of literature in Africa" organized in Dakar by the African Cultural Institute with PNUD and UNESCO. The proceedings were published by NEA in 1984.

[2] "Is it worthwhile to forget what you forget to learn what you learn?".