Aleen is the Digital Heritage Specialist for Language in Lyrics.

By Aleen Leigh Stanton

Bliadhna mhath ùr dhuibh! Happy New Year to you all! We’re back for another #TechTuesday. This is the second half of our detailed look into online Gaelic resources. Just like last time, we’ll investigate how the sites are built, and how each project compares to the needs of Language in Lyrics.

Last week we left off by talking about Gaelic resources in Nova Scotia. Now we are going to shift gears and jump across the pond to explore the resources that are available and based in Scotland (well, there’s one bonus from Ireland, but hopefully that’s ok).

If you have any more suggestions or questions about what we’ve covered so far, feel free to share them with us, and we’ll be sure to feature them in future posts and/or answer them as best we can.

Tobar an Dualchais: Kist-o-riches

What is it? >>>
Tobar an Dualchais: Kist-o-riches is one of the best known online Gaelic resources. The collection focuses on audio recordings spanning songs, stories, and oral history. The sheer number available online is astounding: almost 50,000. The site also has a very detailed search function to help you sift through all those recordings.

What’s behind it? >>>
The Tobar an Dualchais website is built, like most modern websites, on a backend database that is invisible to the visitor, but allows complex search queries, a highly visual interface, and other functions. The site runs on a bespoke database built especially for their purposes. The site was redesigned and modernized in 2018 by EDINA, a “centre for digital expertise and online service delivery” out of the University of Edinburgh.

Lessons for Language in Lyrics >>>
Like we discussed last time, having an outside firm design and build a website for a project comes with pros and cons. If you have access to a firm that is somehow connected to your project (through a different department, an affiliated university, etc.), then this could be a very sensible option. But if it would require hiring a completely unconnected outside firm on contract (which is often the case), then careful planning has to be done to ensure that the site can continue to be updated, patched, and secured long into the future. There are so many things to think about when building a website that aren’t immediately obvious, but which can greatly affect the budget and the future of the project.

Digital Archives of Scottish Gaelic, University of Glasgow and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig

What is it? >>>
Like Tobar an Dualchais, the Digital Archive of Scottish Gaelic (DASG) is a pillar of the online Gaelic community. The Archive is a joint effort between the University of Glasgow and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye. DASG is organized into three main categories, or online exhibits, all on the top of the main homepage: Corpus na Gàidhlig (corpus), Faclan bhon t-Sluagh (fieldwork), and Cluas ri Claisneachd (audio archive). Corpus na Gàidhlig is a searchable database of Gaelic texts. Faclan bhon t-Sluagh, their fieldwork database, is a collection of documents and recordings which capture vernacular Gaelic vocabulary. Cluas ri Claisneachd, for its part, brings together five audio collections: the Historical Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic (HDSG), Mòthan, Guthan nan Eilean, Calum MacNìll, and Am Bàrd Bochd.

What’s behind it? >>>
DASG, like Tobar an Dualchais, is a bespoke website based on a backend database. In this case, we actually know a little bit about what is going on behind the frontend curtain. All of the information for the audio recordings on the Cluas ri Claisneachd, for example, is entered into phpMyAdmin, a free software. PhpMyAdmin, in turn, tells the database (e.g. MySQL or MariaDB) what to do.

Lessons for Language in Lyrics >>>
Databases, like MySQL, MariaDB, and others, power many digital humanities projects that need to organize a large amount of information. Language in Lyrics needs that power – we will likely have thousands of song records by the time we are finished the project. Some database software is commercial (e.g. FileMakerPro, Microsoft Access), while occasionally (e.g. mySQL, MariaDB) they are free and open access. However, you still would need someone on your team who knows how to use the SQL coding language if you decide to go for the more DIY option with a database.

The Pearl Project, University of Edinburgh

What is it? >>>
Established in 1996, The Pearl Project is an initiative from the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. What may be of particular interest for you, if you’re already interested in Language in Lyrics is their audio archive, called Tocher (Gaelic for “dowry”). Tocher was first established in 1971. There, they have digitized transcriptions of text, music, and stories held in the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh.

What’s behind it? >>>
Like the MacEdward Leach Collection we looked at last time, The Pearl Project website is a series of static HTML webpages. We get a hint on the homepage, where it instructs us that the website requires a “frames-capable browser” – frames are a common way to embed content when coding HTML webpages. Another clue is the lack of a search function: the site is based on browsing hyperlinks and clicking around to explore. This is very different than our first two examples, which are structured mainly around a powerful search function on the homepage.

Lessons for Language in Lyrics >>>
We talked a little bit about static sites versus database-based sites last time, but here’s a great definition that is clear and in plain language:

“Most of today’s websites use server side programming languages that generate the website on the fly by querying the database. This means that every time someone visits a web page, it is generated on demand. On the other hand, a static website is generated once and exists as a simple set of documents on the server’s hard disk. It’s always there, not just when someone visits the page.”
“How to Build A Low Tech Website,” Low Tech Magazine

Hopefully that definition makes everything clearer – I know it took me a long time to figure it out. The important take-away for Language in Lyrics that, although static HTML websites are easier on beginner coders and easier on the environment (as we saw last time), they don’t really work for our purposes. Our number one priority at Language in Lyrics is creating a searchable database and a user-friendly interface, which is just too complicated for static HTML pages.

Am Baile, High Life Highlands

What is it? >>>
High Life Highlands produced Am Baile. The site focuses more on historic material relating to the Highlands, rather than sources about the Gaelic language directly. That being said, it paints a cultural picture that complements the rest of the sites on the list. Their collection of historical photographs and their newspaper index are particularly impressive. The site also has a full Gaelic-language version.

What is behind it? >>>
Am Baile’s website is powered by Capture. Capture builds “digital asset management systems” for its clients. Basically, the company creates bespoke websites. Many of their clients are museums, galleries, and heritage institutions. For Am Baile and others, that also includes websites which can handle organizing a large amount of digital objects (photos, historical documents, recordings, etc.).

Lessons for Language in Lyrics >>>
This raises the same question we’ve been dealing with again and again – the pros and cons of bespoke websites. They are tailor-made, which can solve a lot of the problems that a complicated project like Language in Lyrics brings up. But, if you don’t have in-house expertise, you have to hire someone else to build it. This can be nice at first, but problems arise when it comes to site upkeep, as we’ve discussed already.

Ceòl nan Gàidheal

What is it? >>>
Ceòl nan Gàidheal is a digital resource from the National Library of Scotland. You can find it under the Digital Gallery page. The website draws from the Library’s own holdings to, as they describe on the homepage, “provide an initial insight into Gaelic music, its history, instruments and song, transmission methods and how the tradition is very much alive today.” The website has plenty of historical contextual information, as well as digitized music books, early examples of written Gaelic, and recordings from the Library’s collection. The textual sources are free to download for personal use – you can even download the entire book in some cases.

What is behind it? >>>
As a Digital Gallery within the institution, Ceòl nan Gàidheal was created by the National Library of Scotland. But, as with many institutions, it is not clear how the site is actually built. That being said, it’s safe to assume that an institution as significant at the National Library has the resources to hire web designers and IT professionals to create a site that meets all of their specific needs.

Lessons for Language in Lyrics >>>
Again, there is the lesson here of institutional partnerships and how important they are. Institutions often have the resources needed to build and run a complex website. Sometimes building from scratch is necessary, but it can be worth seeking out institutional partnerships if at all possible. With institutional support, a website won’t become a one-off, languishing after the initial push. It will continue to have a life, with continued traffic, security, and updates.

Irish Traditional Music Archive

What is it? >>>
Even though this last one isn’t technically Scottish, it was well-worth a mention. The Irish Traditional Music Archive features music from other related regions, including Scottish Gaelic songs from Scotland and Nova Scotia. Their website is very stream-lined and their search function is clear and easy to use.

What is behind it? >>>
The Irish Traditional Music Archive is very unusual, in that the archive staff explain in detail how the site and database were built on its Digitisation page. ITMA has two sections that make up its online presence: it has an online library catalogue for its physical holdings, and a selection that are digitized and available in the Digital Library section. The library uses SoutronLMS as its OPAC system. On the other hand, the Digital Library runs on Craft Content Management System, which itself grew out of Expression Engine (remember content management systems from the last blogpost? We’ll talk more about them in a later blogpost).

Lessons for Language in Lyrics >>>
The lesson here is one that we’ve touched on before, but there’s a twist. We’ve already discussed the lesson that an archive, by definition, has a different structure than something like the Language in Lyrics project. But, here’s the twist this time: CraftCMS is known for its flexibility. You don’t have to have objects in your database. It doesn’t have to be an archive. Craft is open source, but also has an option for paid support and help with updates. And the best part? You can create your own custom fields. This is absolutely essential for us at Language in Lyrics. This kind of content management system is certainly an avenue for us to explore.

So, with our survey complete, what are the overarching lessons for us?

Going over the Gaelic resources already available online gives us a good indication of the options available to us. Beyond the specific software we talked about, we can boil down these options to just a few main categories:

There is the (1) content management system option;
there is the (2) static page option;
there is the (3) full database option.

There is the (1) contractor option;
there is the (2) institutional partner option;
there is the (3) DIY option.

Then, there is the fact that any of these can be used in combination. It’s enough to make your head hurt!

Looking back over the last two blogposts, and actually, the last few months working on Language in Lyrics, there is one lesson that is the biggest of them all. And it was the one I learned the quickest: it can be pretty difficult to figure out how sites we know and love are built. The curtain is thick sometimes – it’s not the kind of information that organizations usually place on their “About Us” page.

But that’s fair enough. Most people probably aren’t there to find out if they’ve used x database or y content management system. If you’re lucky, you might know someone who knows someone who works there who can draw back the curtain a bit. But otherwise, it can be guesswork. Maybe this will change in the coming years as more and more people become tech-literate and get curious about how the projects they care about were put together. For now, the curtain remains drawn. But the ensuing detective work is quite fun.

At Language in Lyrics, we’re hoping that, in sharing our own development process with you (warts and all), we might save others some time and tears if you find yourself involved in similar types of projects. If we share processes, talk with each other, and compare notes, all of our individual projects will only be the better for it.

I hope this jaunt through the Gaelic web has been helpful and useful to you!

Til next time,

Le beannachd,


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