Aleen is the Digital Heritage Specialist for Language in Lyrics.

By Aleen Leigh Stanton

Welcome back to #TechTuesday and to our digital kitchen table. This week, we’re going to be exploring the online Gaelic world in a bit more detail.

We’ve talked a lot about context, about Digital Humanities, about philosophy. Now, we finally get to focus in on the intersection between technology and Gaelic specifically. As you probably know, Scottish Gaelic has a pretty extensive presence online. For now, we’re focusing on Nova Scotian resources. Next week, we’ll focus on their counterparts in Scotland.

But, why are we doing this survey? Aren’t there already lots of lists of Gaelic resources out there for speakers and learners? (See, for example, this comprehensive list from Dr. Emily McEwan, which is itself based partly on Gaelic Affairs and Highland Village Museum lists here and here).

Well, this list below is a bit different than the ones above. Basically, it’s an expanded excerpt of a document the team has been busy compiling, comparing, and contrasting behind the scenes as background research for the Language in Lyrics project. Part of preparing our own online database involved exploring what other resources are out there.

Think of it as a big Venn diagram. We did this survey to make sure our mandate didn’t overlap with any other project, but also, more importantly, to figure out what there was in common, and whether we could take away any lessons from how other people had built their databases and websites. As well, for any interested readers out there, this list may help you peek behind the curtain of some of the websites you visit often, and perhaps find inspiration there for your own projects.

This post will break down a selection of existing online Gaelic resources, and where known, explain what’s going on behind the scenes tech-wise. I’ve been inspired by Miriam Posner’s blogpost “How Did They Make That?“, and this post will follow a similar format.

Without further ado, here are some classic examples of digital Gaelic resources from Nova Scotia, and an explanation of the tech behind them.

An Drochaid Eadarainn / The Bridge Between Us, Highland Village

What is it? >>>
The Highland Village launched An Drochaid Eadarainn (The Bridge Between Us) in May 2012, coinciding with Gaelic Awareness Month. Its approach is innovative – it’s not like the digital humanities projects we talked about last week, which are more straightforward examples of digitization or online archives. It’s more of a portal than a website. It is designed to reflect how Gaelic language and culture is transmitted from generation to generation, and to create that social space and social transmission in the virtual realm. As many of you may know, the title of the site is a nod to the role of bridges as gathering places in traditional Gaelic culture. As the virtual equivalent, the site has a large interactive element. A section of the site, An Drochaid Bheò (The Living Bridge), allows users to upload their own content. The website is primarily Gaelic-language based. While there are English translations for many pages, not all are bilingual. It serves as a valuable resource and gathering place for intermediate and advanced Gaelic speakers.

What is behind it? >>>
An Drochaid Eadarainn is built with Drupal. Drupal is a back-end framework for building websites (WordPress would be an example of an alternate system that does the same job – we’re going to do a whole blogpost on WordPress soon). Basically, Drupal organizes and manages content and controls functionality on websites. Drupal is written in PHP, and it’s free and open source.

Lessons for Language in Lyrics >>>
Having a site specifically designed from scratch for Language in Lyrics was certainly an option to consider. But, usually, an outside contractor is required. So even if the code is open source, the labour is certainly not free. And when it comes to upkeep and maintenance, that’s where things get tricky. If your organization doesn’t have the Drupal expertise in-house, for example, then ongoing site upkeep over the years can prove unwieldy, expensive, and difficult. These are all factors to consider.

MemoryNS, Council of Nova Scotia Archives

What is it? >>>
MemoryNS is a hub site for archival collections across the province. It hosts an array of Gaelic archival material from the Nova Scotia Archives, the Beaton Institute, the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre, and many others. You can search the site for holdings, read descriptions, look at finding aids, and in some cases, view images. While obviously its records are not exclusively about Gaelic, MemoryNS could be used a gateway to find other things. For example, the Nova Scotia Archives has uploaded information on the MacLean and Sinclair family papers to MemoryNS, which might then lead you to their virtual exhibit called Goireasan Gàidhlig (Gaelic Resources), which uses the MacLean and Sinclair family papers as its flagship collection. You can find the exhibit on their website under the Virtual tab, the home of all their digitized archival content. They have a lovely introduction providing historical context, and in the right sidebar visitors can navigate to the different subcategories of Gaelic archival material. They’ve got photos, letters, poetry, petitions, government reports, newspapers, historical scholarly articles, sheet music, and more. That’s the great thing about MemoryNS – it can act as a gateway to help you explore other archival collections you otherwise might not have come across.

What is behind it? >>>
MemoryNS is powered by AccesstoMemory (AtoM for short, pronounced like the thing that’s made up of protons, neutrons, and electrons). AtoM is a content management system (we’ll talk more about content management systems in a later blogpost) made especially for description and dissemination of archival collections. AtoM was designed by a Canadian company and has quickly become very popular with Canadian archives. MemoryNS, for example, has 58 institutional members in Nova Scotia.

Lessons for Language in Lyrics >>>
AtoM was an option Language in Lyrics seriously considered in the beginning. However, as we discussed at the very beginning of this series in the first blogpost, our database doesn’t have objects. It is designed to organize song information, not historical documents or artifacts. It differs greatly from archival collections in that way. Also, the description categories for the songs in the Language in Lyrics database are very different than how archival objects are described. For us, we need fields like song title, air, first line (chorus), first line (verse), song subject, song structure, place of origin, composer name, composer patronymic, and more. For archives, they need to conform to archival description standards, which include fields like creator, date, physical description, format, language, and more. The categories are right there in the code, and can be very difficult to change (again, probably require outside hired help). One of the strong selling points of AtoM for heritage institutions is that it conforms to archival description standards (e.g. Dublin Core), but that is a stumbling block more than a selling point for Language in Lyrics.

Sruth nan Gàidheal / Gaelstream, St. Francis Xavier University

What is it? >>>
Gaelstream is the digitized collection of audio recordings from the Cape Breton Folklore Collections. Gaelstream is beloved by the Gaelic community in Nova Scotia. After St. FX’s site went down last year, the outpouring from the community was so strong that Gaelstream was quickly recovered and reinstated. The reupload is a temporary interface until a more permanent solution can be found, but all the content is there along with a search function.

What is behind it? >>>
Gaelstream is powered by Islandora. Think of Islandora as a cousin to AtoM. Like AtoM, Islandora is a Canadian, open source content management system. Like AtoM, it is also meant to be used to organize digital assests for archival collections. Islandora was originally built by UPEI’s Robertson Library using Drupal, Fedora, and Solr.

Lessons for Language in Lyrics >>>
Islandora is very similar to AtoM, and so the same problems persist. Archival description standards for our custom description fields, and content management for our database with no objects (e.g. the audio recordings tied to each record in Gaelstream).

MacEdward Leach Collection, Memorial University

What is it? >>>
In 2004, the Department of Folklore created the MacEdward Leach Collection’s online home. While the site is centered around the MacEdward Leach Collection, the contextual information spans much more. There are separate categories for communities, songs, and singers in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. The site is built to be explored; for visitors to look at each page, follow links, and read all the information. And there are reams and reams of information when you start clicking around.

What is behind it? >>>
The MacEdward Leach Collection’s website was created before any of our other examples in this post. If you click around the site, you can tell it is built very differently than the others. Because it was built in the early 2000s, the website is based on a series of static HTML pages that exist on their own, rather than a content management system that constantly pulls information from a back-end database to create dynamic webpages (they don’t exist if you don’t click on them). The MacEdward Leach Collection was built with Dreamweaver (formerly Macromedia, now Adobe), an HTML editor. MUN is currently working on a project that will update and bundle the MacEdward Leach collection with a larger initiative – stay tuned.

Lessons for Language in Lyrics >>>
This one is an interesting case. There has been a recent resurgence of interest in static HTML websites recently, driven by the thought that they are greener than modern alternatives. Most modern websites are based on more resource-hungry content management systems hosted on server farms. (For an example of a “green” modern HTML site, see Low Tech Magazine‘s self-hosted, solar-powered website. They explain how it works on their About page). A static HTML website probably wouldn’t work for Language in Lyrics, because we need a very fulsome database and, most importantly, a powerful, advanced search function. But it’s fun to think of the old-fashioned HTML webpages coming back into fashion, and also having a smaller carbon footprint.

That’s all for this week. Next week, we’ll be looking at Gaelic resources across the pond, and exploring their approach to building their online content.

Le beannachd,


2 thoughts on “#TechTuesday | How It’s Made: Online Gaelic Resources in Nova Scotia

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