Raising money to free classic volume on Africa's oral literature

A campaign on Unglue.it is seeking to raise $7,500 to pay for a Creative Commons Attribution-only licensed edition of Oral Literature in Africa, an out-of-print classic on the subject that is widely sought by African libraries. Once the money is raised, they will produce the new edition and make it widely available.

First published in 1970 by Oxford University Press, this classic study has been hailed as "the single most authoritative work on oral literature”. It traces the history of story-telling in Africa, and brings to life the diverse forms of creativity across the African continent. Author Ruth Finnegan is thought to have “almost single-handedly created the field of ethnography of language” with this book, and it continues to be a go-to text for anyone studying African culture.

However, despite its enormous scope and popularity, Finnegan’s book is now out of print. It is particularly hard to find in Africa, where its original retail price was beyond the budget of most university libraries. The non-profit organization Open Book Publishers is endeavoring to make this definitive book freely available to African students and scholars — and indeed to any interested readers around the world. The Unglued Ebook will be particularly friendly to people in places with slow Internet connections: once a copy is downloaded, the book can be read offline.

This edition, developed in conjunction with Cambridge University’s World Oral Literature Project, will include a new introduction and extra digital material. When Finnegan’s book was first published forty years ago, the technology did not exist to include audio clips. Part of this Unglue campaign will involve the creation of a free online repository of Finnegan’s audio recordings of African story-telling, carefully collected during her fieldwork in the late 1960s. These clips, together with original photographs taken during her research, will become available for the first time to researchers everywhere — an invaluable resource to scholars of African literature and culture.

Oral Literature in Africa (via Copyfight)


    1.  From the FAQ:
      “We work with rights holders to decide on fair compensation for releasing a free, legal edition of their already-published books, under Creative Commons licensing.”

    2. Compensation for potential lost royalties.  Incentive to make it worthwhile to experiment with new business models.

      Or, to take a very traditional viewpoint: it’s a straight-up licensing fee, just like rights holders have always sought some sort of licensing fee in exchange for rights.

  1. It’s our startup on Boing Boing!  Excuse me while I have a fangirl moment here :)

    OK, now that I’ve recovered, I want to note that we’re not just ungluing this work — we have 4 more active campaigns right now (a horror novel, an LGBT novel, a middle-grades novel, and a set of early readers), and our goals are more ambitious than that: to compensate authors and publishers — lots of them, everywhere — for putting out Creative-Commons-licensed editions of their works, so that more and more books can be part of our public heritage for everyone on earth to read, share, and benefit from.  To be a platform for you to give your favorite books to everyone on earth.

    So we DEFINITELY welcome any help with ungluing Oral Literature in Africa (8% of the way to its goal since our launch at noon yesterday!)  But we also welcome help with our other campaigns — and people who want to add works to their wishlists, so we know what we should be tracking down rights for — and people who own the electronic rights to works that they’d like to make more widely available.

    Or, you know, help with creating a disruptive new marketplace to change the world.  That works too.

  2. Sent on some money, I hope this can be released, as it’s something with which I’ve been academically interested.

  3. The publishing industry has changed since the 1960s when Heinemann could distribute African writing to African readers at prices that schools and consumers could afford. The African book market has changed too, especially since the 1980s book famine. This campaign is an incredible end-run around these two problems.

    Bravo, Open Book Publishers, for an absolutely great idea.

  4. What I don’t understand is why books(that are in demand) still go ‘out of print’.

    Based on what we know of the physical-book-scanner-pirates, doing a hackjob digitization of a text is fairly quick and fairly cheap. Based on what we know of assorted mostly-vanity e-presses, having small print runs done on demand is also pretty cheap.

    Why, then, would any rightsholder ever move a book to ‘out of print’ when they could just move it to ‘lead time 1 week’ for eternity?

    1. Because that’s not how academic publishers work (although they could). They are still mostly on the “does it make economic sense to print a new run of 5000 copies?” model. Yes, print on demand and e-book technology makes this model obsolete, but the industry doesn’t change in an instant.

  5. According to WorldCat (the shared library database) there are at least 728 libraries that own the original 1970 edition. Additionally 635 libraries also own the 2000 edition, although there’s very likely a lot of overlap.

    To put it simply I think libraries might be an excellent source of funding for this, especially if as part of making a contribution they’re offered the opportunity to add it to their collections and store digital copies on their own servers (which would benefit everyone).

    I think individual contributions are great, but I can think libraries that have paper copies (and even those that don’t), would be extremely interested in supporting this.

    1. The Creative Commons license means libraries are more than welcome to store unglued ebooks on their own servers.  In fact they can store them without DRM, in whatever format they want, and are free to shift formats as needed to serve their preservation goals.

      As the librarian at Unglue.it (Simmons MLS!), I would LOVE for unglued books to be helpful to libraries.

  6. Just taking a shot in the dark here. There’s a humorous, but mildly racist, story my (white) grandmother told me that I am almost certain is African in origin. It’s actually not racist at all in content, but when a white person tells a story about a stupid black kid in a fakey black dialect, well, there are certain unfortunate implications.

    [Story deleted]

    Anyone heard of this story? Google brings up nothing.

    Found it in three minutes. In spite of all the African elements, the story apparently was written in 1911. While it’s quite clever and teaches a good lesson about when to not blindly follow instructions, it was simply using a racist parody of black folks to make the story even “funnier”, which isn’t really funny to me.

    1.  Is this the story about the farm worker who was in jail for killing his boss?  His lawyer asked him to explain what happened, so he says: “Mr. MacDonald told me he wanted me to drive a stake into the ground.  He gave me a sledgehammer & took hold of the stake, saying “Now, when I nod my head, hit it.”  He did, & I did, killing him dead.’

      1. No, the story was “Epaminondus and his Auntie”. A clever story written by a white person sImilar to the “Barrel of Bricks” story.

        I loved this story, but suspected it was racist at age seven.

        Maybe I can rewrite it as a Texas Aggie joke.

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