{ subscribe_url:'/share/sites/library-of-congress-blogs/insights-kluge-center.php', }

Parallel Worlds and the Digital Age: Representing Audio Collections with Digital Data at the American Folklife Center and Beyond

This is a guest post by Patrick Egan (Pádraig Mac Aodhgáin), a researcher and musician from Ireland, former Kluge Center Fellow in Digital Studies and currently on a Fulbright Tech Impact scholarship. He recently submitted his PhD in digital humanities with ethnomusicology to University College Cork. Patrick’s interests over the past number of years have focused on ways to creatively use descriptive data from archival collections.

Patrick Egan at the American Folklife Center. Photo by Steve Winnick

As the Irish saying goes: “an rud is annamh is iontach,” “what’s seldom is wonderful.”

Irish America is often thought about in terms of waves of emigration to urban centers such as New York, Boston, or Chicago, evidenced by recordings made in those cities by musicians such as the great uileann piper (Irish bagpipe player) Patsy Touhey and fiddle virtuoso Michael Coleman. But the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress is home to a diverse array of recordings that illuminate intriguing histories from all over North America. Very often these musicians lived in remote places such as Nova Scotia, Montana, West Virginia, or the Central Valley area of California.

Surprising Stories of Musicians in Fascinating Times

As a Kluge Fellow in Digital Studies and Fulbright Tech Impact scholar, the Library has afforded me a unique opportunity to delve into these collections, revealing the music, songs, and stories of everyday people who lived through fascinating times, from the beginnings of recorded sound in the early 1900s, to the depression era of the 1930s, and the folk revival of the 1970s. Some of the stories of these musicians have been captured, preserved, and digitized for all to hear.

Take, for instance, John Harrington, an accordion player from Butte, Montana who grew up in a mining town called Mercur City in Utah. John’s bohemian lifestyle challenges many narratives of migration that are sometimes taken for granted in Irish America, and hearing about his experiences was illuminating.

John was born in Utah in 1903, moved to Butte in 1911, and then to Ireland in 1919, a crucial time in Irish history. For eight years he lived in West Cork. In 1927 he relocated to New York and worked on the 8th Avenue subway. When World War II broke out he worked at a shipyard in California, and then he finally relocated back to Butte. John made an album of his music in 1999 at the age of about 96, and lived until he was 100 years old!


It is stories like this that accompany thousands of recordings of Irish traditional music at the American Folklife Center. They shine a light on “parallel worlds” through which musicians, singers,

Button accordion player John Harrington. Library of Congress photo

and dancers emerged in Irish America. With these parallel worlds comes an amazing diversity of repertoires, recording situations, and stories of unsung performers.

I have been working on a project entitled “Connections in Sound” since January, which focuses on experimental ways to bring these archived audio materials together, to reveal hidden treasures, and to unite tunes, songs, and dances using digital tools.

Why digital? Why now?

Internet communities and online resources of Irish traditional music have grown steadily over the past thirty years or so. Websites such as www.irishtune.info and www.itma.ie are making the music, songs, and dances available for people to access and learn.

Understanding this trend and the position of the archive is the central focus of my research, looking at Irish traditional music in America in particular. Even though an archive of Irish traditional music doesn’t yet exist in America, the American Folklife Center contains a sizeable and highly diverse collection of material, making it possible to link up multiple versions of tunes and songs in Irish traditional music.

Collaborators with LC Labs have provided expert knowledge on how to harness these recordings with state of the art digital infrastructures to bring the music together and connect it to online resources. Making these connections will allow us to create an interconnected web of useful resources.

The Challenges of Bringing Diverse Collections Together in One Dataset and Representing Them Online

A number of challenges arise when creating digital representations of audio material and connecting them on the web. For example, when entering musicians into the dataset, it was discovered that a number of them had not officially recorded or published their music or work. In these cases, the musicians had no “authority files” created for them, leaving them underrepresented.

Take John Harrington, mentioned above. John was an amateur collector of cultural heritage materials. He donated collection materials to libraries during his lifetime, and so has been given a “name authority“, which is a web resource that is unique to him. As can be seen at this link, the name authority not only gives an artist a unique ID on the World Wide Web as a webpage or homepage, but it also provides biographical details of that person and other details that allow us to find out more about them.

For some performers, this is not the case. Take for example Mae Mulcahy, a concertina player, housewife, mother, and also a well-known member of the community in Butte at the time she was recorded by Gary Stanton for the Montana Folklife Survey in 1979. Without an authority file, however, there is no identifier or webpage that can be used for her; this needs to be created if future discoveries of her performances are to be linked together.

Exploring these issues is important to the Connections in Sound project, as many instances like this example occur throughout the dataset. Ultimately, this gives us insight into what it means to engage in digital activity.

An event will take place at noon on Thursday August 29th, where Patrick Egan will be in conversation with staff from the American Folklife Center addressing the progress of his project, Connections in Sound, and discussing the audio collections that contain Irish traditional music. He will also present some digital visualizations and digital infrastructures that he is using for linking music recordings, and finish with a performance of Irish traditional music with local DC musicians.

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 […]

Can social media save UK politics from Brexit?

This is a guest post by Helen Margetts, John W. Kluge Center Chair in Technology and Society at the Library of Congress. Margetts is a Professor of Internet and Society at the University of Oxford, and served as Director of the Oxford Internet Institute from 2011 to 2018. Her most recent book, “Political Turbulence: How […]

How to Think About Data: A Conversation with Christine Borgman

Members of the Scholars Council are appointed by the Librarian of Congress to advise on matters related to scholarship at the Library, with special attention to the Kluge Center and the Kluge Prize. The Council includes scholars, writers, researchers, and scientists. “Insights” is featuring some of the work of this group of thinkers. Dan Turello […]

Tahir Hemphill Looks Back on his Year at the Kluge Center

As Harissios Papamarkou Chair in Education Tahir Hemphill’s year at the John W. Kluge Center ends, he took the time to share his reflections on his experience with us at The Library of Congress. Hemphill’s capstone event, playtest, was a daylong social sculpture exploring the application of virtual and augmented reality to the humanities, education […]

Can Big Data Save Us from Ourselves? A Conversation About Information, Democracy, and Dystopia

On a rainy day in late spring, a pan-Asian noodle restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue offered the perfect nook for a spirited conversation about big data, algorithms, and the construction of our legal and social realities. Among those at the table with me were Martin Hilbert, who was a Kluge Distinguished Visiting Scholar and is Associate […]

Emoji, Texting and Social Media: How Do They Impact Language?

I’m here with Dame Wendy Hall, Kluge Chair in Technology and Society, Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton and early pioneer in web protocols; with Alexandre Loktionov, AHRC Fellow at the Kluge Center and an expert on hieroglyphic and cuneiform legal texts; and with Jessica Lingel, Kluge Fellow, assistant professor at […]

Cross-Cultural Links in Modern Computing

“The humanistic inquiry and innovation may appear to be independent of one discipline to another. Yet they weave a more interconnected story as well as demonstrate the pervasiveness of digital technologies in modern culture.” -Jennifer Baum Sevec In her lecture “It From Bit: Cross-Cultural & Interdisciplinary Links in Modern Computing,” Kluge Staff Fellow Jennifer Baum […]

Laser Beams and Avatars: Investigating Digitized Warfare Simulations in the Library of Congress Collections

The following is a guest post by Janina Schupp, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge and an Arts and Humanities Research Council Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center. In a rural part of France, in close proximity to Paris, lies the town of Jeoffrécourt. A seemingly average municipality with riversides and playgrounds, the […]