#TechTuesday | How It’s Made: Online Gaelic Resources in Nova Scotia

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,

Aleen

#TechTuesday | What on Google Earth are Digital Humanities? (Part 2)

By Aleen Leigh Stanton

And just like that, it’s #TechTuesday again. If you’re new here, welcome; if you’re visiting again, welcome back. This is the third post in the Kitchen Table series, and the second half of our discussion about Digital Humanities.

Aleen is the Digital Heritage Specialist for Language in Lyrics.

Last week we introduced the field of digital humanities, and talked about the various ways to define it. We looked at crowd-sourced definitions, definitions from academia, classic “textbook” definitions, and more. In the end, we decided the simplest definition was the best. Digital humanities does exactly what the humanities do: using technology, it tries to understand, explain, and shed light on the human experience of the world and our collective place within it.

We stopped last time on the edge of a precipice, right before jumping headfirst into some of the debate surrounding digital humanities. Now, let’s pick up right where we left off.

The Digital Humanities Debate

When the digital humanities create projects in order to understand the human experience, they strive to focus on openness and accessibility – which is exactly what we are trying to do at Language in Lyrics. However, not everyone agrees with how successful this approach has been in the past or will be in the future.

Even though the 2010s could be dubbed the ‘digital humanities decade,’ some scholars take issue with the field. We hinted at this tumult in the last blogpost. Honestly, before I started doing the research for these blogposts, I had no real sense of the debate within digital humanities. I had no idea that some scholars debated the effectiveness of digital humanities for solving real-world problems, or thought big data could solve it all just by its very nature, or argued that not enough was being done to restructure the field to welcome everyone, or considered some digital humanities projects as hokey, fad-ish, superficial, and not critically rigorous.

If you read some of the sources I linked in the last post, you might have run across some of the dissent. Now, it’s time we gather round and gather all these threads together to discuss them.

Critiquing Digital Humanities: MadLibs Edition

Photo by Erin Stevenson O’Connor on Flickr

Criticisms are complicated. But let’s play a little fill-in-the-blank game to sum them all up (call it nerdy MadLibs if you’d like). It’s a fun, succinct way to show the ways in which digital humanities can be sometimes negatively seen.

Digital Humanities is . . .

. . . a fad.
. . . a gadget.
. . . a QR code.
. . . superficial.
. . . not rigorously researched.
. . . not critically argued.
. . . “a handmaiden to STEM.” (see Adeline Koh’s article)
. . . structured to impede diversity (Posner’s article and Bailey’s article)
. . . data-mining like “browsing in a store.” (see Stanley Fish’s article)
. . . “tinkering” without ultimate meaning. (see Leon Wieseltier’s article)
. . . a “cult of data” and arrogant scientism
. (again, Wieseltier’s article)
. . . alienated from real world problems.
. . . a bandwagon for the technologically illiterate.
. . . just plain hokey.

The tide of criticism seems to have been at the high water mark in the early 2010s, just as Digital Humanities was itself experiencing exponential growth in tandem with technology’s growing grip on our everyday lives – especially mobile technology, apps, and Web 2.0. (Side note: Web 2.0 essentially means the social, interactive way we use the web now).

Digital Humanities: more than a QR code?

Although the harshest criticisms have faded a bit, the core issues of utility, diversity, and purpose remain. As with any academic field, it’s a constant balancing act of approaches, attitudes, and priorities. And as with any new field, there are growing pains.

The full debate over Digital Humanities (and there’s even debate over whether to call it that anymore) is too complex to tackle in these blogposts, but, again, reading the linked articles in these last two blogposts or the articles in Debates in the Digital Humanities will give you a fuller sense of the contrasting views that are out there.

All this back-and-forth disagreement could easily make you start singing the chorus of a familiar 1970s classic:

But We Can Agree on Some Things…

You’ll probably be relieved to know that there is some agreement, especially now. Despite the debate, most scholars can agree that digital humanities is an umbrella term. It remains faithful to its humanities roots by approaching problems and questions that affect all facets of our human experience. But in its approach, it uses the “digital” (in whatever form that takes) to help make sense of our world and our collective lives. Not replace it, as some have feared, but just to help understand it.

Most importantly, the underlying philosophy of digital humanities has also emerged from the noise as a clear chorus: openness. Open source, open access, open approaches, accessibility, public engagement, etc.

What a relief, to have that clear chorus! It’s a song we all can sing.

The underlying philosophy of digital humanities has also emerged from the noise as a clear chorus: openness. Open source, open access, open approaches, etc.

Types of Digital Humanities Projects

By now you’re probably tired of exploring an esoteric academic field’s mysterious identity, so let’s move on to some more concrete examples of DH projects. This is only meant as a quick survey, but if you’re interested in more detail and more examples, the Topics page of The Digital Humanities Literacy Guidebook has lots of information on digital humanities projects divided into similar categories.

Textual Analysis

The very first digital humanities project was actually an index, just like our project – indexing every word of the works of Thomas Aquinas, led by Father Roberto Busa with IBM in 1949. As John Simpson, the Humanities and Social Sciences Specialist at Compute Canada, explains in an interview: “The Digital Humanities is often said to have come into existence when the production of the Index Thomisticus (a tool for searching the entire works of Thomas Aquinas) began in the late 1940’s through a 30+ year collaboration between Fr. Roberto Busa, a Jesuit Priest, and IBM, who provided the computing resources to make the project possible.”

(For more on digital humanities history, see Duke University’s chronology here; and Cambridge University’s detailed history here).

With its own song index, Language in Lyrics is following a good tradition.

But textual analysis in the digital humanities can be more than indexes. Literary projects often run large datasets of text through software in order to find patterns that otherwise would be missed. Or, they publish new editions with long-lost marginalia. Or, they use technology to salvage books that otherwise would be lost. For the latter, good examples are the scanning and virtual unfurling of fragile Biblical scrolls, or an initiative by Omeka to virtually repair Broken Books.

Digitization and Online Archives

In digitization and online archives projects, museums, archives, and galleries come alive. They are online exhibits that let you interact with the artifacts, or they make primary sources like historical texts and photos available to view. Like we talked about a couple blogposts ago, these kinds of projects would be similar the British Library’s Flickr (by the way, the British Library also has a great blog about digital humanities) or the Association of Nova Scotia Museum’s NovaMuse.

This is one of the most popular categories of Digital Humanities activity, and like textual analysis, has been around since the nascent days of the field. Increasingly, full exhibitions are hosted online after they begin their life as a digitization project. Some award-winning project examples include Medieval Swansea and Mapping Hiroshima. I bet you can find many more on your own, too.

Cultural Analysis

Digital humanities projects in the cultural analysis category are a little more complex to explain than digitization projects or online archives. They are often based on large datasets, and use online maps, graphs, and other interactive elements to convey their findings with the public.

And those findings, in turn, often shed light on underlying cultural phenomena that we might not notice or be able to illustrate without the big datasets. Of all the categories, this is the one aside from textual analysis that “crunches the numbers” the most. A good example is Linked Jazz, which uses the open source software Linked Open Data to illustrate interpersonal connections between jazz musicians. This then shows how ‘loose networks’ play a large role in both history and our experience of the world around us.

Online Publishing

We’ve actually already talked about some of the best examples of online publishing projects. As previously mentioned, Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities is free to read online. And it’s more than a digitized PDF; it’s a structured website based on the book. The other example we’ve mentioned is Debates in the Digital Humanities. Debates is powered by an open source publishing platform called Manifold. This enables the authors of the series to interact with their readers by allowing them to add highlights to passages and add terms to a crowdsourced index. As an additional plus, the interface is one of the cleanest, easiest-on-the-eyes online reading experiences out there.

Online Networks and Directories

You might have heard of HNet, a well-known example of digital humanities in the networking realm. Then there’s the Humanist Discussion Group, which has been going strong since 1987. Other major DH initiatives and organizations include University of Victoria Digital Humanities Summer Institute and centerNet. Another chance to learn and connect comes through The Programming Historian, where you can find tutorials on how to do pretty much anything related to digital humanities, and brush up on tech skills. There are also annual Digital Humanities Awards – you can explore past years to find other great examples of projects.

But Why Are We Talking About This?

By now, you may asking why all of this context matters. You’re probably wondering why we’ve spent so much time going through the ins and outs of an unfamiliar academic subfield. Why are we talking about this?

That, at least, is a fairly easy question to answer. Language in Lyrics owes its philosophy and methodology to the digital humanities. It has inherited digital humanities’ goal of public engagement, openness, and accessibility. Our song index won’t be data for data’s sake – it’s meant to be used as a tool by our Gaelic cultural community. And this is completely in keeping with the spirit of digital humanities.

Language in Lyrics . . . has inherited digital humanities’ goal of public engagement, openness, and accessibility.

Our song index won’t be data for data’s sake – it’s meant to be used as a tool by our Gaelic cultural community.

Now that we’ve explored where these digital humanities ideas come from, we can move on to explore other digital humanities projects within the online Gaelic world. Over the next two blogposts, we’ll be exploring what other digital resources are out there for Gaelic, especially music, both here in Nova Scotia and in Scotland, concentrating on how they harness technology. We’ll be comparing their approach and databases to the Language in Lyrics project.

See you next time for more kitchen table technology conversation.

Le beannachd,

Aleen


Nonrequired further reading:

Association of Nova Scotia Museums. NovaMuse. https://www.novamuse.ca.

Arts and Humanities Research Council, University of Southampton, King’s College London Digital Lab, Queen’s University of Belfast. City Witness: Place and Perspective in Medieval Swansea. http://www.medievalswansea.ac.uk/en/.

British Library. Digital Scholarship blog. https://blogs.bl.uk/digital-scholarship/.

Cambridge University. “Defining Digital Humanities.” Cambridge Digital Humanities. https://www.cdh.cam.ac.uk/cdh/what-is-dh.

Carnegie Mellon University. The Digital Humanities Literacy Guidebook. https://cmu-lib.github.io/dhlg/.

Cashion, Debra Taylor. Broken Books. Saint Louis University. https://brokenbooks.omeka.net/.

CenterNet (An international network of digital humanities centers). https://dhcenternet.org/.

Compute Canada. “Q & A with John Simpson.” Humanities and Social Sciences Research Portal. https://www.computecanada.ca/research-portal/humanities-and-social-sciences/.

Digital Humanities Awards. Highlighting Resources in Digital Humanities. http://dhawards.org/.

Fish, Stanley. “Mind your P’s and B’s: The Digital Humanities and Interpretation.” The New York Times. 23 January 2012. https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/23/mind-your-ps-and-bs-the-digital-humanities-and-interpretation/.

Gold, Matthew K. and Lauren F. Klein. Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/projects/debates-in-the-digital-humanities-2019.

Hiroshima Archive Production Committee. Hiroshima Archive. http://hiroshima.mapping.jp/index_en.html.

HNet (Humanities and Social Sciences Online). Michigan State University. https://networks.h-net.org/.

King’s College London. Humanist (Journal and Discussion Group). https://dhhumanist.org/

Koh, Adeline. “A Letter to the Humanities: DH Will Not Save You.” Hybrid Pedagogy. 19 April 2015. https://hybridpedagogy.org/a-letter-to-the-humanities-dh-will-not-save-you/.

Manifold (affiliated with University of Minnesota Press and funded by Andrew W. Mellon Foundation). https://manifoldapp.org/.

Pratt Institute Semantic Lab. Linked Jazz. https://linkedjazz.org/.

The Programming Historian. https://programminghistorian.org/.

Schreibman, Susan, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, eds. A Companion to Digital Humanities (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/.

University of Victoria. Digital Humanities Summer Institute. http://dhsi.org/.

Wieseltier, Leon. “Perhaps the Culture is Now the Counterculture.” The New Republic. 28 May 2013. https://newrepublic.com/article/113299/leon-wieseltier-commencement-speech-brandeis-university-2013.

#TechTuesday | What on Google Earth are Digital Humanities? (Part 1)

Aleen is the Digital Heritage Specialist for Language in Lyrics.

By Aleen Leigh Stanton

Welcome back to #TechTuesday. In this second post in the Kitchen Table series, we are going to explore something we only mentioned in passing last time: digital humanities. Let’s gather round the (digital) kitchen table for another discussion and see if we can figure this out together.

First, why are we even talking about digital humanities? You might be wondering, what does that have to do with Gaelic songs? Well, Language in Lyrics is one example of a digital humanities project. I mentioned this last time, but now I have more time to explain.

Part of my job over the last few months has been big-picture thinking and researching the world of digital humanities, and our little corner of that world with Language in Lyrics.

In order to do that, I had to figure out exactly how to define digital humanities, and decide our place, as Language in Lyrics, within it.

You’re going to see pretty soon that much ink has been spilled over how to define digital humanities, and this blogpost is not ground-breaking in its exploration of it. I’m not saying anything new here, but instead trying to organize all the information I’ve found through my research all in one place so you can get a sense of the lay of the land. It was a lot of reading, a lot of Googling, and a lot of note-taking – I’ve done it so you don’t have to!

In order to understand the Language in Lyrics project, along with its goals, aims, and challenges, we have to understand digital humanities. But, what are we talking about when we talk about “digital humanities”? What does that term actually mean?

Defining digital humanities

The simple answer: it can mean a lot of different things. Sorry, was that a cop-out? It’s true! Digital humanities projects can take almost any form – indexes, digitization projects, online databases, literary or textual analysis, online maps/GIS, oral history, among many others. Digital humanities projects often “crunch the numbers” for analysis using datasets or digitization, and then share the results online in some kind of user-friendly and accessible content. Big data in little bytes. (Couldn’t resist).

Crowd-sourcing a definition

The question I asked in the title of this blogpost is not a new one. Many have tried to define the nebulous field of digital humanities, and even tried to figure out whether it should be grammatically singular or plural (I know). And because it’s digital humanities, of course some clever person has created a website called whatisdigitalhumanities.com, which loads a new crowd-sourced definition of digital humanities every time you refresh the page. If you’d like to see what all those responses look like blended together, it would be something like this (after all, word clouds seem to be the gateway drug of digital humanities):

A “tourist map” take on digital humanities

But crowd-sourcing isn’t the only way to define the field, of course. Another way would be looking to The Digital Humanities Literacy Guidebook. It’s a brand-new online resource from Carnegie Mellon University that you can explore to learn more about the field. The website is a self-described “slim guidebook” and “tourist map” to the digital humanities.

They take the position that digital humanities . . .

“. . . simultaneously describes a community of practice, a research program, a set of methods, a constellation of publication venues, and a collective ethos that have all stubbornly defied definition since the term first came into use.”

(From What are the Digital Humanities?)

A bit of a dodge, but that’s ok. I know how they feel.

Overall, the Handbook is a very pretty website, and it’s quite fun to click around it. Go check out their Topics page, Project Videos page, and information they’ve collated about grants, job boards, online courses and textbooks, degree programs, and DH community organizations. It’s a great starting point.

Some actual textbook definitions

Because, you know, sometimes the old-fashioned route can be good too! But there’s a twist. Again, since it’s digital humanities, scholars have made the entire Blackwell’s Companion to Digital Humanities free to read online. Also available to read online is Debates in the Digital Humanities, an edited series published biannually which explores current issues in the field. If you want a traditional library deep-dive, this route is for you.

The academics weigh in

In case you’re still curious and want a more academic take on the definition, Matthew Kirschenbaum’s article in the ADE Bulletin (associated with the Modern Language Association) provides an in-depth dive into all the various iterations of the field.

You may notice, interestingly, that Kirschenbaum never actually defines digital humanities on his own terms. Instead, he simply points out that “what is digital humanities” is already its own genre. Digital humanities is nothing if not open for interpretation.

William Pannapacker takes a similarly open approach. His series of blogposts/articles between 2008-2013 for the Chronicle of Higher Education provide a good introduction to the lay of the land in layperson language: Summer Camp for Digital Humanities, Digital Humanities Triumphant?, Big Tent Digital Humanities: A View From the Edge Part 1, Big Tent Digital Humanities: A View From the Edge Part 2, and Cultivating Partnerships in the Digital Humanities. Pannapacker populates his blogposts with colourful characters (academics in cargo pants) and wry, outsider observations (comparing DH conferences to the glittering awe of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition). But only once does he try to define digital humanities:

“Some uncertainty persists about what characterizes the field besides a spirit of cooperation and an eclectic group of people who identify themselves with it . . . Essentially, the digital humanities seem to be a collective effort to use information technology to improve our understanding of the human experience.”

William Pannapacker, The Chronicle of Higher Education

I like this definition – it’s clear and straight to the point. Just what we need.

And, come to think of it, that could describe exactly what we’re doing with Language in Lyrics. We’re trying to construct a Gaelic song database in order to better understand our experience as Gaels, through language and music.

Continuing Debate

Ok, so I think we have a definition of digital humanities now – or at least a few to choose from! But another question remains: has the digital humanities entered the mainstream yet?

The field of digital humanities has been growing over the last two decades, but mainstream acceptance is elusive. In his article in the 2019 edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities, Ted Underwood called it a “semi-normal” thing, but that hanging qualifier – “semi” – persisted. Digital humanities continues to be considered somewhat of an up-and-coming or outsider discipline. For example, the Chronicle of High Education is still publishing polarized articles about it, including a series in Spring 2019 called the “Digital Humanities Wars” about the merits of the discipline. Why this debate?

But let’s hit the pause button for now. I don’t know about you guys, but my head is just exploding right now. We’re going to need fresh eyes to tackle the tangled threads of the digital humanities debate.

We’ll explore this debate, as well as some concrete examples of digital humanities projects, in the next #TechTuesday post. We’ll also bring all these threads together and explain the ultimate significance of all of this background digital humanities context for Language in Lyrics. See you next time around the kitchen table.

Le beannachd,


Aleen


Nonrequired further reading:

Carnegie Mellon University. The Digital Humanities Literacy Guidebook. https://cmu-lib.github.io/dhlg/.

Chronicle of Higher Education. The Digital Humanities Wars series. The Chronicle Review. March 2019. https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Digital-Humanities-Debacle/245986.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “The Humanities, Done Digitally.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 May 2011. https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Done-Digitally/127382.

Gold, Matthew K. and Lauren F. Klein. Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/projects/debates-in-the-digital-humanities-2019.

Heppler, Jason. What Is Digital Humanities? https://whatisdigitalhumanities.com.

Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What is Digital Humanities and What is it Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin. Number 150, 2010. https://mkirschenbaum.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/kirschenbaum_ade150.pdf.

Pannapacker, William. “Summer Camp for Digital Humanities.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 27 June 2008. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Summer-Camp-for-Digital/45865.

Pannapacker, William. “Digital Humanities Triumphant?” Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 January 2011. https://www.chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/pannapacker-at-mla-digital-humanities-triumphant/30915.

Pannapacker, William. “Big Tent Digital Humanities: A View from the Edge Part 1.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 31 July 2011. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Big-Tent-Digital-Humanities/128434.

Pannapacker, William. “Big Tent Digital Humanities: A View from the Edge Part 2.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 18 September 2011. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Big-Tent-Digital-Humanities-a/129036/.

Pannapacker, William. “Cultivating Partnerships in the Digital Humanities.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 13 May 2013. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Cultivating-Partnerships-in/139161/.

Schreibman, Susan, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, eds. A Companion to Digital Humanities (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). http://www.digitalhumanities.org/companion/.

Underwood, Ted. “Digital Humanities as a Semi-Normal Thing.” Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019). https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/projects/debates-in-the-digital-humanities-2019.




#TechTuesday | Welcome to a New Series: Gather Round the Kitchen Table

By Aleen Leigh Stanton

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!

Aleen is the Digital Heritage Specialist for Language in Lyrics.

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,

Aleen

A’ Tàr-sgrìobhadh le Teicneòlas / Transcribing with Technology

Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond is a member of the Language in Lyrics team.

Sgrìobh mi ‘s a’ bhlog mu dheireadh agam gu robh mi ‘dol a dh’innse dhuibh beagan mun teicneòlas a tha sinn a’ cur gu feum. Seo agaibh e, agus tha mi an dòchas gum bidh e feumail dhuibh. I wrote in my last blog post that I was going to tell you a bit about some of the technology that we put to use when transcribing. Here it is, I hope it will be of interest!

I find one of the most useful pieces of technology, when I’m transcribing, is having the ability to slow down a recording. Here are a some programs and a website for varying playback speed, and transcribing, that I have tried:

Express Scribe: This is a program that I purchased (there is a free version) that allows you to upload an audio file and type into a screen that is part of the program. I liked the speed control and a very nice feature is that when you press play after pausing the audio it rewinds a few seconds which saves a lot of time.  BUT you can’t adjust the font and the type is quite small if you are working on a laptop. Also, if you have the free version it constantly asks you to download other programs. I think there are better options.

oTranscribe: This is a web-based application that we tried at a “transcription céilidh” experiment at Baile nan Gàidheal / Highland Village Museum (more on that in a future post!). It is open source software created by the MuckRock foundation that funds free tools to help journalists, researchers and citizens, and that pleases me greatly!

This is a very clear platform which also nicely slows down audio and rewinds a few seconds when you hit “play” after pausing the audio. (I don’t think I can transcribe without that feature now!)

Pros:

  • It’s quite simple to upload audio from your computer to the website.
  • The website will save your text every five minutes to your web browser and will keep up to 100 copies (You just have to push the history button on the right side of your transcript)
  • You can use “command” J to insert a ‘timestamp’…this is useful if you just want to move on and come back later to something you didn’t understand.

Cons:  

  • When you exit the page and return you often have to upload the audio again.
  • You have to be careful to copy and paste your work to an offline location on your computer in order to save and share.
  • Initially we found the the keyboard shortcuts were not ideal, for example the stop/start command was the ‘escape’ button at the top left of the keyboard. But since then we realized that you can customize your shortcut keys by going to the settings page

As I discovered, it seems that you have to avoid some of the keyboard short cuts that are used by the operating system, like command b (bold), command w (new window), command o (open) command t (new tab) etc. which limits the characters you can use.

Here is what I am trying, with some  mnemonics that I made up to go with them.

Play/Pause. Command e (éirich)

Skip backwards – command a  (air ais)

Skip forwards- command h (air adhart)

Rewind to start – command r (a-rithist)

Speed down- command m (nas maille)

Speed up- command l (nas luaithe)

Working with offline on your computer Quicktime and Windows Media Player will also give you the option to slow down audio:

Quicktime (for Mac):

Open Quicktime and open the file you need to alter;
Click on the Window menu and open Show A/V controls;
Use the controls at the bottom of the A/V window to alter the speed.

You can rewind a few seconds by pulling back the “Jog Shuttle” toggle (bottom left).

Windows Media Player (for PC): (I work on a Mac laptop so don’t have access to this program so I can’t tell you if it has a similar function to “Jog Shuttle”…maybe someone can let us know?)

Open Windows Media Player and open the file you need to slow down;
Click on the view menu and go down to Play Speed Settings;
Click on this and the setting open at the bottom of the screen allowing you to speed up or slow down the music.

The nice part about working offline on your computer is that you will always have access to the files and it is easy to share your work-in-progress with friends by sharing it in a Google Doc. We’ll be exploring this idea further in a future post exploring the concept of the ‘transcription céilidh’ and ways you can use technology to facilitate group transcription. After all, as I like to say, it takes a village to transcribe a song…

Céilidh tar-sgrìobhaidh aig Baile nan Gàidheal, an Dàmhair 2018
Transcription Céilidh at Highland Village Museum, October 2018

#TechTuesday | Sìos toll a’ choineanaich / Down the rabbit hole… Finding Gaelic song texts online.

Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond is a member of the Language in Lyrics team.

Le Màiri Sìne NicLaomuinn

By Mary Jane Lamond

Feasgar math dhuibh uile. Tha fios aig an fheadhainn a tha eòlach orm gu bheil mi gu math measail air rannsachadh agus a’ fuasgladh thòimhseachain. Tha na beachdan a leanas a’ dol a bhith ro shìmplidh do chuid agaibh ach tha mi ‘n dòchas gum bi ‘ad feumail do chàch…

Those who know me know that I’m very fond of research and untangling puzzles. Today I invite you to join me on a trip ‘down the rabbit hole’ (my preferred sort of journey). In other words… searching for Gaelic song texts on the internet.

I’ve was so fortunate that I was often able to learn songs from tradition bearers and my peers ‘air chèilidh’, through visiting. I’m also aware that experience isn’t readily available to everyone. But, we have the good fortune to have a wealth of recorded material from which to learn.

I was a student at St. F.X. when I first started to work on learning Gaelic songs. I didn’t have the means to go and visit my elders often, but I did have access to recordings. This was back in the era of cassettes, and just a bare bones internet, so I found it helpful to go The Father Brewer Celtic Collection at St. Francis Xavier University and go through published song collections to see if I could find a setting of the song that would give me a base from which to begin transcribing the version I had on tape.

A favourite place of mine, Father Brewer Celtic Collection at the Angus L. MacDonald Library

A favourite place of mine, Father Brewer Celtic Collection at the Angus L. MacDonald Library

Although it doesn’t replace the valuable experience of meandering through books in the library, the internet is now an extremely useful tool for searching for song texts as so many Gaelic publications have been uploaded to the internet in the form of searchable PDF’s. It’s amazing, really, what you can find!

Transcribing a song is an extremely useful exercise in building language skills and intimately getting to know a song and a singer. However, you can sometimes give yourself a head start on the transcription process by searching for a song online before you start.

(Clicking on any gold coloured text in the following example will give you a link to follow)

For example, I went to Gael Stream, the online platform for Dr. John Shaw’s Cape Breton Folklore and Folk Song Collection, housed at St. Francis Xavier University, and looked for a song I wasn’t familiar with (and there are plenty). I chose An t-Òigear Uallach, sung by Dan Joe MacNeil of Deepdale, Inverness County.

I suggest that if you can make out an unusual line from the song, searching for that line is the best way to narrow your search results.  Those of you familiar with Gaelic song will know that searching for “O gur mise tha fo mhulad” [Oh, I am miserable] is going to give you too many results. (I tried it and got 2,600!)

In the case of this song, I thought that searching just the title in quotation marks might be specific enough, and I was right! A quick internet search showed me that this song was published in An t-Òranaiche but also appeared in Am Filidh , a collection of songs composed by Seumas Munro.

Sure enough, there was An t-Òigear Uallach, with just a few variations in the text as it was sung by Dan Joe MacNeil on Gael Stream.

I have to say, it isn’t always this easy to find such a close text and quite often you will have to do lot more transcribing. We’ll be posting more about some tips for that process in future blog posts.

As that went so swimmingly, and I hadn’t hardly even broken sod, I decided to see what I could find out about Seumas Munro. I searched his name (also in quotation marks) and found a short biography of a Seumas Munro in this jewel of a book :



You can find this book at Archive.org

On page 36 A. MacLean Sinclair writes…“Seumas Munro was born at Fort Inverlochy(?) around the year 1794. He was a school master for a long time at Blàr Odhar. He was educated, and full of music and poetry. He died in 1870. He was never married. The Gaelic Grammar that he put out is extremely valuable. For rules of writing Gaelic correctly it is the best one there is.”

As the song featured in MacLean Sinclair’s book is not An t-Òigear Uallach, I wasn’t sure if we were talking about the same Seumas Munro, SO (I did warn you this was going to be a trip down a rabbit hole, but I promise to stop soon…truly) I went to the National Library of Scotland, which is a complete wonder, and I did a search for Munro’s book “Am Filidh” and got this search result:

So you can see that “my” Seumas Munro also published a Gaelic primer, so it might be the Seumas Munro that A. MacLean Sinclair describes? If anybody has more information on the author of “Am Filidh” do let us know.

Time to come up for air. Hope you enjoyed the trip and that someone decides to start singing this song!

Taing Mhòr Dhuibh Uile | Christmas for Cailín

Colleen is working as Project Assistant for Language in Lyrics during summer 2019.

Taing Mhòr Dhuibh Uile | Christmas for Cailín

By Cailín Laing / Colleen Lynk

As my time with Language in Lyrics is winding down I find myself reflecting on what a fulfilling experience this has been for me. I can still recall with great detail the evening that I first received the news that I would be joining the team for the summer. It was the last evening of my month long immersion course at Colaisde na Gàidhlig, after having applied and completed my interview from my room on campus. I was sitting on the floor in Taigh Céilidh already feeling somewhat overwhelmed with emotion. I was feeling so blessed in my life to be surrounded entirely by a community of Gaelic for what was the 25th consecutive day. I was feeling thankful to have received a small handful of thoughtful gifts from my dear friends, including the most beautiful green ukelele I had ever seen. At the same time, I was sad to be leaving these friends, Cape Breton, and the immersion experience behind the following afternoon to head back to my life in Halifax. As we all chatted, sang, and played music, my phone buzzed with the notification that a new email that had just come in.

“Fhuair mi an obair! [I got the job],” I exclaimed.
“It really is like Christmas for Cailín,” echoed back.

Participants on the immersion course at Colaisde na Gàidhlig, May 2019

When learning about the various different tasks that I would be doing while working on the project, my excitement only grew. Not only would I have the opportunity to work with different resources to collect and input song data, but I would also be collecting quotes and idioms to create graphics and keeping a blog about the topics that interested me. This would provide me with the opportunity to learn more about Gaelic song, the bards that composed them, the communities that kept them alive, the traditions behind them, and the language itself. I would then be able to utilize my passion for writing as a tool to share the passion that I have for Gaelic. As someone whose heart yearns for my language and culture every waking moment that it is not actively present in my life, this was a dream come true.

I was very fortunate in my work with the project to be able to spend time entering data for Gaelic song collections from areas of Cape Breton that I had not previously done a lot of research on myself. This gave me the opportunity to widen my scope of knowledge in regards to Gaelic song and specific local characters, stories, and traditions. I would often play the audio recordings that were included with Guthan Prìseil, a wonderful collection with many of the songs being sourced from the Iona and Christmas Island areas of Cape Breton, while I was reading the pages and collecting data. Sitting in my living room and hearing the voices of the Gaels who came before me ebb and flow throughout the room as I read about their lives was truly a magical experience.

What was slightly unexpected to me was just how much I would learn through gathering quotes and idioms to create graphics with. Spending quieter days reading excerpts pertaining to the history and customs of various time periods, despite not always being related to specific songs or communities, provided depth and context to the entirety of the work I had been doing. At the same time I was unintentionally gaining knowledge about my own personal interests. It was through this process that I was able to learn more about Òrain Leannachd (Courtship Songs) and the true (often humorous) character of how they functioned at the milling table in the North Shore, a concept that I had previously heard of only in passing. I also had the pleasure of happening upon many other anecdotes that revealed much about the history of my people and my home, including one involving a man who had composed songs about his experience staying in Sydney upon arrival from North Uist. This was something small yet so personally significant to me as someone with North Uist roots hailing from Glace Bay.

One of several graphics Colleen created during her time at
Language in Lyrics


Perhaps the most fulfilling of all has been channeling the excitement of learning and growing into writing these blog posts. It is a blessing to learn indeed, but an even greater blessing to share. I am so grateful to all who have taken the time to follow my journey throughout the weeks. I have genuinely felt the love and support of my community as the time has so quickly passed by.


In conclusion, this experience is one that has enriched my life greatly and I will forever remember the gift that it has been for me to be able to contribute to a project so meaningful to my community and so important in preserving and creating access to our language, culture, and specifically our songs.

It is a blessing to learn indeed, but an even greater blessing to share.

It seems quite harmonious that I have spent the final days of my work with Language in Lyrics in the same place that it had began. Colaisde na Gàidhlig has been a huge cornerstone of my journey over the last few years, both providing me with a wide range of knowledge and allowing for the formation of truly invaluable relationships with others in my community. As I sat in MacKenzie Hall each evening, the sweet fiddle tunes of other passionate students surrounding me as I quietly worked away, my heart felt so full and warm. The timing of this journey was no accident: this is where I was always meant to be.

Le gach beannachd.
Until we meet again.