Drum song performance in Accra, Ghana. Ruth Finnegan’s seminal “Oral Literature In Africa” covered stories, songs and numerous other forms of African oral culture, but the study has been out of print for many years.

A campaign to republish an out-of-print classic on the subject of African culture, using funds donated by academics, enthusiasts and general readers, has been launched online.

It was frustrating to me that my book has largely been unavailable to readers in Africa itself. It is wonderful to think that it will now be freely read in the very continent that it discusses.

Ruth Finnegan

The campaign can be found at: https://unglue.it/work/81724/

Ruth Finnegan’s seminal study, Oral Literature In Africa, was first published in 1970 and is highly rated as one of the most important books of its kind ever produced. The book traces the history of story-telling in Africa and was based on years of fieldwork which Finnegan carried out in the late 1960s, recording people from different African nations reciting stories, myths, legends and songs from their culture.

One commentator has called the study “the single most authoritative work on oral literature”. Another claimed the book “almost single-handedly created the field of the ethnography of language.”

Despite such acclaim, however, the ground-breaking work has been out of print for many years. Ironically, it is particularly hard to get hold of in Africa itself, where its original retail price was beyond the budget of most university libraries.

Now researchers have organised an online campaign to release the rights to publish the book so that they can relaunch it for free as a download.

It is being organised by the World Oral Literature Project, which is a network of academics dedicated to preserving and promoting the stories, songs and other “oral literatures” of different indigenous peoples around the world whose cultures are, in many cases, at risk of disappearing undocumented.

Working in partnership with the Cambridge-based Open Book Publishers, the Project have organised their campaign on unglue.it; an online initiative which crowd-funds the republication of books that have gone out of print and cannot be reproduced due to legal restrictions.

Unglue.it decides a fair licensing fee with the authors and publishers, then tries to raise this by asking readers and supporters of the campaign to make whatever donation they can afford. If the campaign is successful, the rights holders get paid and issue a free electronic edition of the book under a Creative Commons licence.

Dr Mark Turin, Director of the World Oral Literature Project is a linguist and anthropologist who teaches at the University of Cambridge and Yale University. He said: “The aim is to republish Ruth Finnegan’s classic text so that we can give it away online for free. Together with Open Book Publishers, our vision is to make this book available for download anywhere. It will also be particularly useful for people in places with slow internet connections as, once a copy is downloaded, it will be possible to read it offline.”

The new publication will include extras such as audio clips, based around a free repository of Finnegan’s audio recordings, carefully collected during her fieldwork in the late 1960s. Photographs taken during her research will also be available.

The new edition also includes a thoroughly revised introduction surveying the most important work in the study of African oral literature, including sections on poetry, prose, “drum language” and drama.

To publish it online for free, the campaign needs to raise $7,500. If they are successful, the new edition will be launched at the World Oral Literature Project workshop in Cambridge on 29-30 June, 2012.

Finnegan, who has been made an OBE in recognition of her life’s work in anthropology and African cultural studies, said: “It was frustrating to me that my book has largely been unavailable to readers in Africa itself. It is wonderful to think that it will now be freely read in the very continent that it discusses.”

More information about the campaign and how to support it can be found at: https://unglue.it/work/81724/

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