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The Chronicle of Higher Education

Thursday, July 24, 2003



A Collection of Ancient Folk Tales From Turkey Meets Modernity on the Internet


For more than four decades, researchers interested in folklore and oral history have trekked to Lubbock, Tex., to use one of the world's most comprehensive collections of indigenous tales: the Uysal-Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative at Texas Tech University. Now, through a digitization project, librarians at the university are making their unique archive accessible to a broader audience on the Web.

Texas Tech came upon its sizable collection "by sheer luck," according to H.B. Paksoy, an adjunct professor of history at the institution who heads the online project. In 1961, Warren Stanley Walker, a professor of English at Iowa's Parson College, was teaching English in Turkey on a Fulbright grant. There he met Ahmet Edip Uysal, a professor of liberal arts at Ankara University.

The pair shared an interest in Turkey's rich but largely unacknowledged history of folk narratives, and spent parts of several years journeying to small villages to document indigenous tales and traditions. When Walker returned to the States and took a position at Texas Tech, Uysal continued to send information collected from the field. The transcripts and recordings that Walker accumulated became the basis of the university's collection. (Uysal died in 1997, Walker in 2002. Walker is survived by his wife, Barbara, who worked with the oral-narrative archive until this year.)

Online, the Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative makes available all of Walker and Uysal's transcripts of Turkish epics, folk legends, and local stories. The Web site's highlights include versions of the Dede Korkut, an oral history of Central Asia that survived for almost a thousand years before it was committed to paper in the 19th century. Samples of Uysal and Walker's fieldwork include stories like "The Guessing Children" and "The Farmer and the Bear," gathered from Turkey's Konya province.

Such narratives shed light not just on Turkish life, but on the central role of folk tales in cultures throughout the world, according to Mr. Paksoy. "These would be of great interest to anyone investigating cross-cultural stories," he says. "A great volume of what we have online applies to students of anything from Icelandic sagas to African narratives, because it provides a context and a sense of what themes develop across cultures and geographies."

In addition to the transcripts, the site includes a growing number of multimedia elements. At present, Mr. Paksoy and his colleagues have digitized a small collection of images of modern-day Turkey, audio of indigenous-music performances, and many of Uysal and Walker's recordings of epic tales as narrated by Turkish citizens. Mr. Paksoy says he is working on placing recordings of key narratives alongside the transcripts so that researchers can listen to a reading in a Turkish dialect while examining its translation.

Faculty members at a number of colleges offering courses in Turkish culture and linguistics -- including Princeton and Indiana Universities and the University of Pennsylvania -- have directed students to the site, Mr. Paksoy says. Erika H. Gilson, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, is one such professor. Ms. Gilson and other professors say that the site is a useful tool in part because it provides students of Turkish with valuable exposure to the language as it is spoken.

The Web site presents its information in a smorgasbord of languages. Most of the material is available in both Turkish and English, but many of the narratives are recorded in some of the many dialects -- including Kazakh, Turkmen, and Uzbek -- that appear in pockets throughout the nation. The site's use of multiple languages has increased its appeal, Mr. Paksoy says, noting that the project has attracted a strong contingent of international users.

And Mr. Paksoy says that the archive's home on the Web has made the narratives available to an audience that would never have traveled to Texas to use the originals. In the first three weeks of 2003, when the project made its debut online, some 10,000 documents were viewed or downloaded -- more, according to Mr. Paksoy, than were read in the library's previous 41 years. The original collection can still be seen only by appointment.

"This way we can reach the furthest corners of the earth without potential users' having to travel," he says.


Go Back to Uysal-Walker Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative
Uysal Walker Türk Öykürleri Sandığı'na Geri Dönüş

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