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Computing culture in the AFC Archive

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gordon in archive
Robert Winslow Gordon was hired by the Library of Congress in 1928 to create an archive of folksong using the new media of his time: wax cylinders.

This week we’re hosting three digital humanities scholars at the American Folklife Center to discuss potential research projects that would draw upon AFC collections. It got me thinking about digital humanities inquiry in developing and understanding the AFC Archives. Across our history, we have embraced new media, explored data- and metric-driven approaches to studying and computing culture, and have recently connected with digital humanities projects that resonate very directly with our history and perspective.

For the uninitiated, the digital humanities is “a diverse and still emerging field that encompasses the practice of humanities research in and through information technology, and the exploration of how the humanities may evolve through their engagement with technology, media, and computational methods,” according to the Digital Humanities Quarterly. Digital humanities (often abbreviated DH) combines a common methodological outlook that blends traditional humanities disciplines (such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies) and social sciences with computing tools (such as data visualization, information retrieval, data mining, and statistics) and digital publishing. In short, DH is about leveraging technology to not only do research bigger, better, and faster, but also to scale and transform research.

Embracing the New Media of 1920’s

While perhaps not readily apparent, a DH sensibility permeates this archives, starting with its founder, Robert Winslow Gordon. He leveraged the emerging technology of the day—wax   cylinders—to help transform the collecting and preservation of folksongs. In a time when other folksong scholars typically took down ballad texts from graduate students, Gordon “carried his heavy cylinder recorder (and later, his disc machine) to the San Francisco waterfront, the Appalachian Mountains, and the Georgia coast in order to record the diverse singing traditions of this country,” wrote his biographer, Debora Kodish.  “To him, the recordings were exciting aesthetically, theoretically and technically.”

She describes him as a tinkerer, fascinated by technology. “In his theoretical orientation, his scientific outlook, his dedication to technical accuracy, and his interest in phonographic and photographic documentation, Gordon was a pioneer among the folklorists of the 1920s and 1930s.” Throughout his lifetime, he amassed almost 1000 recordings that seeded the archives. (Hear him testing a microphone in the field.)

Lomax’s Metrics of World Cultures

Punch card from Alan
Punch card from Alan Lomax’s performance styles research. (AFC2004/004)

Another major contributor to the archives, Alan Lomax, began in the 1950s to overlay a scientific approach onto his vast collecting experience, developing a project aimed at decoding expressive systems across world cultures. He developed a series of global performance style studies—Cantometrics, Choreometrics, Parlametrics, and Phonotactics—that were united in a multimedia platform called the Global Jukebox. Between 1989 and 1995 some 7,000 coded performances were linked to sound and film clips, images, text, and a discography and filmography, which could be researched through an extensive menu and an interactive globe. At Lomax’s Association for Cultural Equity, they are working on releasing a modern version of this digital tool, which you can learn more about on the organization’s site. The AFC Archives holds all of the materials that Lomax gathered and created to research and analyze performance styles.

Computing the Blues in the 1970s

Analyzing performance styles was also the subject of groundbreaking research by former archives head Michael Taft. Starting with his dissertation in 1977, Taft used data analysis techniques to explore exactly how blues singers use formulas to spontaneously compose songs. We hold computer printouts of a concordance to the words of 71 blues lyrics by the musician Blind Lemon Jefferson compiled by Taft as part of his thesis research during his graduate study at Memorial University of Newfoundland in 1974. The study is an early example of computer use in folklore analysis and was generated at the former Center for Computer Research in the Humanities, University of Colorado, under the direction of Michael Preston. Taft went on to publish multiple books further exploring the “blues lyric formula.”

Data Mining the AFC

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Evaluating scratches from a 1939 disc recording using audio analysis software from the HiPSTAS project.

Numbers and texts have been favorite data types to manipulate by computer. Audiovisual materials, the predominant format in our archives, are among the hardest formats to mine. Luckily, digital humanities scholars are at work on the problem. The HiPSTAS (High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship) project is experimenting with new technologies to access and analyze audio. A staff member at AFC used recordings from the collection during early testing of the software, which has sophisticated pattern-mapping capabilities that have the potential to help archivists and researchers make discoveries about audio files that weren’t possible before. The conversion of interests between scholars and librarians is only growing, especially as we both explore new modes of web presenting. A great example is Wendy Hsu’s recent post, “Ethnography beyond text and print: how the digital can transform ethnographic expressions.”

AFC wants to continue the tradition of encouraging digital humanities inquiry into the more than three million photographs, manuscripts, audio recordings, and moving images in the Archives. If you’ve done a digital humanities project using this collection, or have an idea percolating, we’d love to hear about it.

Comments (3)

  1. As a folklorist and someone who works in the digital humanities, I wish I had known about this. I would love to have been part of this event.

    • This is a small group from a single institution that initiated the visit. Sorry, I should have been more clear.

  2. Any consideration for building on this? The NEH might be interested in seeding something. I’d be happy to help. AFS might be interested, too. As someone trying to build a corpus of material to work with, I’d love to collaborate.

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