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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.

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