#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,


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,


Tha Gàidhlig agad co-dhiù | learning through loving, healing through connecting

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

Tha Gàidhlig agad co-dhiù | learning through loving, healing through connecting

By Cailín Laing | Colleen Lynk

On May 30th, 2016 I attended an event at one of my local libraries for what is known here in Nova Scotia as Mìos nan Gàidheil, or Gaelic Nova Scotia Month. The event was a talk given by Gaelic Affairs head, Lewis MacKinnon, in which he spoke about cultural stereotypes and the Gaels, providing a great deal of historical context and information. After listening to the presentation, as I was still processing everything that I had learned, I asked a question of Lewis that I couldn’t have truly understood at that time: What does it mean to be a Gael?

I asked a question that I couldn’t have truly understood at that time: What does it mean to be a Gael?

Subconsciously for me, I believe that this question was an attempt to understand my own identity. I had learned so much about the places that my family had come from and who they were at the core of their Gaelic identities, and it had left me wondering what that meant for my own. What words could I use to refer to someone in my situation, having grown up with vague cultural traditions in place but a lack of meaningful language to describe them? My father’s mother was certainly a Gael. A handful of my mother’s great grandparents were Gaels. But what was I? And what could I become if I were to channel this confusion and curiosity into breaking the chain of colonization and shame?

I asked one follow-up question that evening: where could I begin to learn Gaelic in Halifax?

Colleen tells a story in Gaelic at the ‘Na Sgeulaichean’ event in Halifax, with her mentor Laura translating.

My first class through Sgoil Ghàidhlig an Àrd-Bhaile, the local Gaelic Society in Halifax, took place in January 2017 at the home of Laura Stirling, who has since become a dear friend and my greatest mentor. The class was quite small and it was done through total immersion in the language, involving lots of repetition and hands on learning. This was a stark contrast to the formal language learning that I had been used to. However, as I sat there with nine years of French education and yet not a word of French coming to mind, I decided to commit myself to the experience. At the end of the winter session I was feeling quite comfortable with what I had learned.

I was somewhat dismayed, however, when it turned out I would not be able to take a beginner class in the next session. Laura assured me that she had faith in my ability to move forward and added that, should I feel uncomfortable during the first couple of classes, I could always pull out until the Autumn session.

When I arrived to the first class of the following session, I immediately felt overwhelmed. There were quite a few people there and they appeared to already be quite familiar with one another. As Laura went around the circle asking each student how they were to start off the evening, I also noticed that each person seemed to be worlds ahead of where I was with my Gaelic at that time.

I had three major worries: Would I be accepted as a newcomer? Would my lack of Gaelic hold others back in their learning? And would I truly be able to succeed if I already felt so unprepared? Despite these questions, I didn’t want to give up so easily. It wasn’t long before I knew that I had made the right decision. One evening, during some friendly banter between students, one of the women placed her hand on my shoulder and exclaimed that, well, I was one of them now. I can distinctly remember the feelings that I had had upon hearing those words. I felt accepted, I felt supported, and I felt the roots of true community as they began to plant themselves firmly into my life.

My efforts started small and continued with the help of Laura and many of my fellow students. I knew that I would be asked how I was at the beginning of class, so I would use that opportunity to practice a different phrase each evening. When I would leave class, I would go home and speak to my cats in Gaelic using the new words and phrases that I had learned that week (they hardly ever answered). I would spend the days in between classes attempting to narrate my life with my limited yet growing vocabulary and listening to milling songs and puirt-à-beul while doing housework, cooking, and traveling. I followed every resource for Gaelic in Nova Scotia on social media. This small, final step proved to be a true catalyst to my learning.

The participants of the month-long Gaelic immersion course ‘An Cùrsa Bogaidh’ at Colaisde na Gàidhlig | The Gaelic College in Cape Breton. Colleen is fifth from the left.

In November of 2017 I took a leap of faith and signed up for a weekend immersion at the Gaelic College. I arrived ‘Glace Bay early’, which is entirely the opposite of what I now know as ‘Gaelic Time’(!) I was nervous to be away from home and to try to build connections with so many new people in the community. All of the worries that I had experienced previously began to come back in this new environment. I once again continued on, though, having some lengthy conversations in English and a few scattered chats in Gaelic. It wasn’t until the second night that I had experienced my second ‘one of us’ moment. I was sitting in MacKenzie Hall with a handful of other young women, chatting exclusively in Gaelic and trying my best to keep up. They were all encouraging and supporting me as I fumbled through the conversation. I didn’t think I could really have an unscripted, colloquial conversation in Gaelic with only ten months of learning under my belt, and yet there I was. I wasn’t speaking perfectly, I couldn’t say everything that I would have been able to in English, but that was no longer a worry: I had some Gaelic, I was using it, and people were understanding me.

Colleen with friend and teacher Beth-Anne MacEachen on set for a Gaelic film.

Shortly after arriving home, I was inspired to commit myself to doing more than just one class a week. I signed up for an intermediate class with Beth-Anne MacEachen during Sgoil Ghàidhlig’s Spring session while still continuing to do a weekly class with Laura. During this time I also participated in my second immersion weekend at the Gaelic College and attended the Gaels Summit in Mabou, which involved six hours of travel and spending most of two days alone (outside of the event) in a place that I had never been to before. I believe this is where I truly started to build my reputation as someone dedicated to, and passionate about, what I was starting to consider my language and my community.

In the last year or so, I have truly devoted myself to growth: attaining a higher level of fluency, gaining wider cultural knowledge, and building strong connections to others in the community. I have attended various sessions at the Gaelic College, social immersion weekends, a handful of one-day immersions, a variety of cultural events and workshops and two Gaels Jams. I have had the opportunity to participate in the creation of a Gaelic film, and most recently completed An Cùrsa Bogaidh, a month-long immersion course offered by The Gaelic College, living on campus for the entirety of the course. I realize that I am blessed to have had access to so many wonderful, enriching experiences. It is through these that I have discovered what I consider to have been the most integral part of my learning: the transmission of language and culture through community and the development of a meaningful connection to my people. Being able to read tha gaol agam oirbh feels little in comparison to having so many people that I could say it to, and hearing the songs that pour passionately out of the mouths of my friends at a céilidh will always surpass even the most pristine professional recording.

The participants at a ‘Gaels Gathering’ event in October 2018

Being able to read ‘tha gaol agam oirbh’ feels little in comparison to having so many people that I could say it to.

The roots that had begun to plant themselves into my life over two years ago are now steady and growing. I am ‘at home’ wherever I hear the sweet sounds of fiddle music accompanying a chorus of ‘’s fhada bhon uair sin!’ and ‘ciamar a tha thu?’. I am a Gael. And I am forever grateful to everyone that has played a role in leading me to this answer since that day on May 30th, 2016.