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Connections in Sound: Irish traditional music at AFC

The following post was written by Meghan Ferriter and originally appeared on The Signal.

Patrick Egan is a scholar and musician from Ireland, currently serving as Kluge Fellow in Digital Studies at the Kluge Center. He has recently submitted his PhD in digital humanities with ethnomusicology in at University College Cork. Patrick’s interests over the past number of years have focused on ways to creatively use descriptive data in order to re-imagine how research is conducted with archival collections.

Patrick recently joined the Library of Congress as a Kluge Fellow in Digital Studies for a six-month residency. Following the end of this Kluge Center fellowship this summer, he will serve as a Fulbright Tech Impact Scholar for another three months to carry out extensive research and further his work in the Digital Humanities and Ethnomusicology.

Throughout 2019, Patrick has a number of digital projects underway, sharing data about recordings of Irish traditional music collected and held by the American Folklife Center (AFC). Patrick’s research aims to understand more fully the role that archives and collections might play in the lives of performers, as a result of the digital turn. He’s created a number of prototypes for exploring the collections and some examples can be seen below. Patrick agreed to share his research and these ongoing digital projects with the public as he creates them and he’s interested in receiving feedback from researchers and the Irish traditional music community.

Exploring Digital Projects – A Community Survey

Chief among the digital projects Patrick is exploring being explored is a survey of how the Irish traditional music community in North America engages with sound files. This has been distributed to musicians, singers, dancers and promoters of Irish traditional music across North America in order to understand their activities with sound recordings on the internet. The survey is a response to the exciting and ever-growing literature on Irish traditional musicians who use the internet as part of their musical lives. However, the activities of performers in North America and the role of archives in this genre of music, song and dance is not yet fully understood.

two men seated at desk working with recorded sound collection

Kluge Digital Studies Fellow Patrick Egan and research intern Cole Plows review recordings

Pathways to the Recordings

In the meantime, Patrick has been excited to dive in and explore the collections themselves, which are filled with over a century of archived recordings containing Irish traditional music. With the help of reference librarians and an intern, Cole Plows, he has supervised and developed two primary sets of data: one containing descriptions of the physical collections (Collections) and another that details the audio items (Items). For example, they pulled common identifiers between performances including location, date, and instrument; that opens doors for linked data possibilities, as you’ll see in live visualizations below. This initial gathering of data enables a deeper understanding of Irish music sound recordings at the American Folklife Center, raising awareness among performers and researchers alike.

“We are grateful for the exposure Patrick’s fellowship is bringing to AFC collections.”
~ Dr. Todd Harvey, Reference Librarian, American Folklife Center.

Display of archived recordings in wax cylinder format

A century of archived recordings saved in the AFC, including wax cylinders

Patrick’s Collection dataset details the collections and the types of recordings within the AFC. The following visualization displays information about file access alongside the original recording formats and more detailed information such as the types of tunes that have been found in each collection. Click on the image below to access the live visualization.

A century of archived recordings saved in the AFC, including wax cylinders

Mapping Irish music sound recordings at AFC: genres, performers, recording formats, and file access

Connections in Sound: the Items Dataset

The Items dataset is an ongoing collaboration requiring extensive close reading; it is also supported by Cole Plows and supervised by Patrick. Building the data set involves listening to audio recordings to identify related, linkable metadata such as performers, and names of performed tunes, songs and dances. Other important data is also collected, such as tune sources, performer anecdotes and details that could potentially link these performances to other data on the internet. So far there are over 1,500 instances of tunes, songs, stories and dances which have been intensively described.

Visualizations can provide users with access details about audio recordings in many ways. For example, the map below displays Irish born emigrants over time (with help from the Geography and Map Division) overlayed with geo-markers of AFC collections, a recombination which highlights regional collecting practices. Clicking into the collection markers opens up the Items dataset, which will be developed throughout 2019. In the Items dataset, these collections are further described at the item level with a number of tunes relevant to Irish traditional music. Links are also provided for items which may be available elsewhere online.

Click on the image below to explore the live visualization and to dive into the collection items.

A map of the United States indicating locations of performances of Irish recorded sound

Mapping American Folklife Center Irish recorded sound performances in the United States

Patrick is sharing his work in a number of ways. He is documenting his research and thoughts via Open Science Framework. You can dig into his wiki activity and explore the collections data for yourself. You can find code for these visualizations at Patrick’s GitHub account here.

These projects are work-in-progress. You can follow Patrick as he documents his fellowships on Twitter and on his research website. Comment and share your ideas with him there or in the comments below. A final note from Patrick: “This research is digital and cultural in nature, and community feedback is greatly encouraged and much appreciated.”

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