Welcome to the Kitchen Table, a new series of #TechTuesday blogposts I’ll be offering over the next little while about digital humanities and technology. Ciamar a tha sibh? Is mise Aleen. Tha mi toilicht’ ur coinneachadh!
Let me begin by introducing myself properly. You’ve heard from Heather and Mary Jane in #TechTuesday social media and blogposts before, and you might be wondering who exactly I am. I joined the Language in Lyrics team as a Digital Heritage Specialist this June. The path that led me to Language in Lyrics is filled with coincidence, randomness, and full-on serendipity.
The first part you may recognize as a familiar story for Nova Scotian Gaels. I grew up mostly in Halifax, surrounded by Rankin Family music and the stories of ancestors who emigrated to Pictou and Antigonish Counties from Mull, Coll, and Perthshire from the 1780s to the 1840s. Separated by two centuries, I still felt I knew the MacLeans, MacGlashans, and Robertsons that I heard so much about. In my teens, I grew more interested in genealogy and began spending time on Big Island, Pictou County, on the piece of land where my three-times great-grandfather Alexander MacGlashan and his family built a farm in 1843. (I now live there full-time.)
That upbringing, paired with university studies in history, led to my academic interest in Scottish heritage, cultural landscapes, and coastal communities more broadly. In my early twenties, I was busy writing a study of Big Island and Scottish emigration filtered through the lens of environmental history (Acadiensis, Winter/Spring 2019) and, with support from the Nova Scotia Museum, leading an oral history project on the Island about “islandness” and coastal change (still underway). But, at that time, I hadn’t really met anyone from the Gaelic-speaking community in Nova Scotia, let alone anyone who would later be involved with Language in Lyrics. In a way, I was off on my own, writing and researching and learning.
This is all background; the key part of the story comes next. Two years ago, I completed my Master’s in Cultural Heritage Management, specializing in music heritage, at the University of York in England. About 18 months ago, I was on a plane from Halifax to Heathrow heading to my graduation ceremony at York. I hadn’t flown to the UK during off-season before, so I decided to try the direct route that has a short stop in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Flying in January is always a risk, but the skies were clear for our route. Unfortunately, the skies weren’t clear over New Brunswick, and our replacement crew that was supposed to be taking over in St. John’s was stuck. We deplaned around 11pm, facing a delay until about 3:30am. Not going to lie about it, I was really upset. The line of passengers coming off the plane was a sorry sight: we were all confused and very, very tired. That’s when I remember seeing Heather, the director of the Language in Lyrics project, for the very first time. I was sitting down at the gate with my backpack and guitar case, and we shared a “what do we do now?” look. It was just one of those moments. We started to talk and soon realized we had quite a lot in common. With four hours to kill, we had plenty of time to cover Heather’s research (Disaster Songs in Canada, for example), my dissertation about country music’s transatlantic connections, our takes on heritage theory, and the pros and cons of UK pay-as-you-go phones. Then we tried our best to nap. Thankfully, we eventually were allowed back on the plane. I was so buoyed by the conversation that it didn’t feel like 3:30 in the morning anymore. Heather and I stayed in touch, and through her, I got involved with the GaelsJam, Gaelic language classes, and, eventually, Language in Lyrics. Looking back, something as unfortunate as a middle-of-the-night delayed flight turned out to be something extremely fortunate.
Now that you have an idea who I am, we can start talking #TechTuesday things. Over the coming weeks and months, you’ll be hearing from me about the behind-the-scenes and inner workings of the Language in Lyrics project in this Kitchen Table series within #TechTuesday blogs.
True to the spirit of #TechTuesday, I’ll be focusing on the technical side of things, especially how it relates to building a database. This is the central concern of the Language in Lyrics project. A major project goal is to compile an index of Gaelic songs made or sung in Nova Scotia that is as comprehensive as possible, and then create a public searchable online database based on that index. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It is actually much more complicated than you might think. (And much more complicated than we originally thought.)
Despite the technical complexities, or maybe because of them, our aim in this series is to share what we have learned in an accessible, easy-to-understand way – as if we are all just talking around a kitchen table. Culturally, it fits for us Gaels. Just another kind of visit (albeit virtual). So, gather round.
Language in Lyrics is a very unique project. Our specific set of needs is different than any other musicology, heritage, or Gaelic project that is currently online. Let me explain what I mean by that. Many websites, including music heritage projects, are based on back-end databases. They usually also have a search function, some more advanced than others. But no matter what, both their databases and their search functions are usually designed to organize objects.
A well-known example in the heritage field would be the British Library’s online presence. Since 2007, the British Library has curated a Flickr account. They’ve filled it with over 1,000,000 digitized documents, maps, photos, and art from their collection. The best part? They’re all in the public domain, downloadable with no copyright restrictions.
The British Library wanted to use the sharing power of the internet to encourage the public to interact with their objects: using, re-using, deconstructing and reconstructing them for creating new projects and content. I’ve pulled a few examples from their collection, but I also encourage you to take a look yourself. Who knows, maybe you’ll get an idea for your next art installation?
A more local example of an online searchable database is NovaMuse, run by the Association of Nova Scotia Museums (ANSM). On their site, you can search for artifacts from museums across the province. Like most online collections of heritage institutions, its website’s goal is simple: you search for a term, you click on the record, you see the object and its associated information. For some examples, see below.
The most important point to drive home is that many digital humanities initiatives are object repositories or digitization projects. (In case you’re wondering what I mean by “digital humanities,” don’t worry, there will be more on digital humanities in the next #TechTuesday post).
NovaMuse differs from the British Library in that their digital objects are not in the public domain. From left to right: Coffeepot, Randall House, Accession #75.F.49; Apron, Colchester Historeum, Accession #86.1731; Stuffed Pugs, Colchester Historeum, Accession #02.3010 A-D; Mousetrap, Scott Manor House, Accession #1995.T081.
Language in Lyrics is something very different than the form many other digital humanities projects take. At heart, it is indeed a digital humanities project. But it doesn’t focus on objects, artifacts, or documents.
Unlike the British Library, NovaMuse, and many others, Language in Lyrics isn’t a museum or archive with its own collection. Once built, our database would link to an index. (See sneak peek of index here). No objects, just the information.
We have a strange beast on our hands: more than a spreadsheet, less than an object database. An index-database hybrid! There are plenty of software programs and digital etiquette conventions out there for organizing archives and artifacts online. Museums and archives have been making their homes online for at least a decade or two by now. Problem is, there aren’t ready-made software solutions for what we are trying to do. We’ve got layers of complications. First, we need something that can handle records in a foreign language, Gaelic. Then, we also need a system that can handle music, which, unlike most records, sometimes can be recordings and sometimes text, but also needs to be categorized for its many non-linguistic characteristics (verse-chorus structure, air, tempo, etc.). So, we need to come up with creative solutions to get that Gaelic song information out there.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Don’t worry, there’s much more on this to come.
This #TechTuesday Kitchen Table series is designed as a peek behind the curtain, a comprehensible explanation, an honest conversation, a talk around the table. We want to take you along with us in a simple, straightforward way as we talk about the goals of the Language in Lyrics project, define digital humanities, discuss pros and cons of various ways to build websites and databases, explore how other Gaelic online resources have been organized, and explain what we’ve learned during the process of the Language in Lyrics project so far.
We’ll see you next time around the kitchen table.
Le gach beannachd,