Friday, November 12, 2004

Encountering the Rhapsode

Thomas Weissinger - The New Literacy Thesis: Implications for Librarianship - portal: Libraries and the Academy 4:2:

Continuing to think about the implications of the context in which we read, I found Weissinger's article helpful in its attentiveness to oral culture. He states:
To satisfy particular audiences and information needs, the rhapsode would compose epics on the spot based on an extensive knowledge of assorted folk tales and themes.60 Thus composed, [End Page 250] the epics were timely and relevant. However, taken out of context, the epic could lose its original significance.61 With the transition from oral cultural to literate mentality (or worldview) came a change in focus from dynamic and temporal forms of meaning to emphasis on permanent and unchanging meaning.62 This shift marked the end of the rhapsode's role "as the essential bearer of the collective memory of his/her community."63 Consequently, epics might still be recited in public, but lacked the moral force and impact they had in the context of a worldview in which such pronouncements were meaningful.64 Still, the idea that librarians and information agents in oral cultures have analogous roles finds corroboration here.65 At various stages along the transition between oral cultural and literate valuations, information agents, as essential bearers of collective memory, work with either memories or written texts.
In recent history, the preservation techniques used by librarians have largely focused on insuring proper storage facilities for materials and re-formatting materials. We convert materials from one physical format to another when the original is deteriorating or destined for obsolesence. We microfilm materials that are stored on brittle paper.

How do we think about preserving knowledge that is a part of an oral tradition? Is it appropriate to think about converting it to a textual tradition? What is lost?

More importantly, how would such a conversion of oral knowledge to text-based knowledge affect one's ability to encounter it. If one receives knowledge through the telling of stories in an oral tradition, does the story have the same impact if read from a book? Certainly Weissinger suggests that one of the things that is lost in favor of permanence is the dynamic nature of the story's meaning.