ICHORA 2020, DAY 2: Patrick Egan, “Enriching Metadata for Irish Traditional Music”

Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Histories of Ordering, Classifying, and Connecting.”

Patrick Egan (Pádraig Mac Aodhgáin), PhD, focuses on “Enriching Metadata for Irish Traditional Music at the American Folklife Center.” How does the digital revolution impact traditional Irish music, which is now very popular, shared and accessed worldwide? Egan suggests that it is a relatively new phenomenon for there to be sufficient archival content to interact with and shape this predominantly oral tradition.

Egan’s Fulbright Tech Impact and Kluge Fellowship in Digital Studies, entitled “Connections in Sound” (CIS), at the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center (AFC) examined field-work audio recordings across 17 audio collections at the Library of Congress with a format range from cylinder to digital file. The resulting dataset described over 2,500 recordings which then became the basis for the development of linked data connecting audio material across a large number of collections and a wide range of media formats. It became apparent that a great deal of the recorded musicians were not covered by LC authority files, since these were limited to authors of commercial music publications. Moreover, MusicBrainz and Wikipedia are usually only covering musicians that rose to fame through their recordings.

The question is, therefore, how the Irish music tradition could be represented in the digital realm, a tradition that Egan characterizes as predominantly oral, and whose “practitioners value its process over its product,” as Egan puts it. Self-teaching or master-student relationships and community immersion are still the dominant way of learning and idea exchange among practicing musicians and this focus on the act of performance prevents in consequence any canonizing tendencies for individual recordings. The online world becomes, thereby, merely a representation of the tradition’s ‘multiformity,’ in Egan’s view. Projects like the LITMUS (Linked Irish Traditional Music) ontology, demonstrate, however, how the digital environment is still able to support the oral tradition but, as Egan argues, the metadata creation by archivists and scholars “must be sensitive to community knowledge,” a feature of the CIS project.

Egan is optimistic that a “digital infrastructure can be built that is attune[d] to the community.” With the right kind of metadata, the results of musicological fieldwork can be represented in a mode of ‘digital orality’ that respects the original ways of knowledge creation, while also providing access to a greater number and variety of recordings and related stories. Thus, this would balance a hierarchy that creeps in through commercial success and greater visibility of professional artists on certain websites. 

Dr. Sebastian Modrow

Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries

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