Scientific Collections


Forms of Presentation: Attempt to Arrive at a Reflexive Critique of Representation

Presentation of a collection in the form of a database on the Internet is never neutral. It will inevitably be based on selection procedures, structures and presentation conventions that co-determine what is known about the collection. In the case of the Sound Archives this generally valid finding would appear to be especially precarious because they originated under duress – from the speaker’s point of view – in prisoner of war camps. Distinct hierarchies between recording director and persons recorded and the classification of speakers as representatives of languages were part of this practice. Many of the categories and concepts used on this website are historic. At times they convey attitudes that do not necessarily correspond to the collection’s current perspective and the attempt to generate a wide range of knowledge by means of transcultural processes. At the same time experience gained in recent years on comparable projects shows that changing forms of presentation continuously is almost impossible. That is why we are now going to reflect on and name at least some of the relevant aspects. This is intended to help and encourage in using the database the development of views of one’s own that run counter to the given categories.

Image Policies

Photographs show not just the image content; they also show themselves and convey, for example, a visual surplus by means of existing image tradition. In the Sound Archives there are, for instance, striking images that depict the speaker in the style of so-called type photography in an attempt to arrive at standardized forms of presentation. These photos incorporate a visual surplus of this kind that stems from the idea of physiognomic comparison. They thus testify to an out dated scientific practice. Despite all endeavors to achieve standardization the people photographed are still recognizable as individuals, undermining the aim of standardization.

Categories, Keywords

The Sound Archives are based on an attempt to record languages systematically in a standardized and categorized way. Categories were selected in the historic personal information forms that were created to go with the recordings. The perspectives have since changed where the recordings are concerned but the categories that originated in their historical contexts continue to constitute comprehensive metadata and they were partly taken over in the course of digitization. In database practice it is hard – mainly for capacity reasons – to continually add new perspectives by means of additions to database fields or to constantly transform the database by revising the data model.

Presentation Conventions such as Data Trees

In the database, languages are arranged genealogically in the form of data trees. This corresponds to the hierarchical principle of the thesaurus developed since 1999 as well as to certain theories of language development. At the same time this form of presentation and the theories associated are criticized. There are clear limitations to data tree presentation because it fails to reflect, for example, interactions between languages. This form of presentation was nonetheless chosen to facilitate the search for languages and language families and to find a pragmatic form of structuring them. Alternatives are conceivable and would be desirable but developing them would require a separate project for which we currently lack the capacities.

Name Changes

Names of countries, regions, ethnic groups and languages change. For research purposes it would be desirable to provide both current and historic terms. Historic names now have a pejorative connotation at times and this point should be noted. We welcome specific pointers in this respect.


When compiling a database with entries in more than 250 languages and with transcriptions of names, etc. errors are sure to occur no matter how much care and attention are applied. They can only be rectified with the assistance of many users with wide-ganging areas of expertise, so the Sound Archives are grateful for feedback of this kind.

Access to Sensitive Material

Recordings made under duress, such as in prisoner of war camps, raise the issue of how we should deal with them now. Should they be protected from abuse and therefore not be made available online or would that perpetuate a problematic power position on the part of the people in charge of the collection? Assuming that there can be no clear answer to this question, we are keen to launch a discussion on the subject as well as dealing with it in a considered way (cf. section headed Possible Uses).

Database Language Versions

A voice and speech collection that to a large extent took shape in an asymmetry of power really ought to provide access for people who speak the Sound Archives’ wide range of languages. The original documentation of the recordings and the creation of the database were initially in German, but we are now endeavoring to provide translations, first in English but with a longer-term view to offering other languages.


The Sound Archives are based on a project to make recordings and thereby collect knowledge in a prisoner of war camp. So they involved hierarchies, such as who has access to what, from the outset. As a matter of principle a database for the Sound Archives makes it possible to remove limits to this knowledge. At the same time the form in which it is presented and the use of a complex data model, etc. are at times highly demanding and linked to scientific conventions with which not all users will be equally familiar. There will inevitably be inclusion and exclusion processes. Efforts can be undertaken in the form of exhibitions, media formats and projects in the speakers’ countries to address categories of people who do not choose to gain access by means of online databases or to whom this access is denied.

Feedback on the Form of Presentation

The attempt to transform the Sound Archives from an enterprise originally organized hierarchically into a transcultural, participative project includes the wish for multifaceted exchange. So feedback is welcomed, not least in view of the forms of presentation and their reflection. Feedback, please, to