If you’re a fan of the banjo, you may want to take a look at a project being carried out by Piedmont Folk Legacies. In 2009, the non-profit organization based in Eden, North Carolina received a Level I Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant was for “planning activities for the creation of a proof-of-concept knowledge management system to allow researchers to study the development and performance history of musical instruments, using the banjo as a test case.” The project is called the “Banjo Sightings Database Project: Vernacular Music Material Culture in Space and Time” and Greg Adams is Project Director.
This sounds really interesting. I’m intrigued about what it could do for banjo researchers and for what kind of model it will be for other knowledge management activities in social sciences and the humanities.
The project description offers this abstract:
Few musical instruments are more closely tied or hold greater significance to American history than the banjo. From its West African roots, to its birth in the seventeenth century Caribbean, and through its meteoric rise in nineteenth century American popular culture, the banjo is an iconic instrument whose impact is woven into the cultural fabric of the American experience. As scholars, researchers, and enthusiasts continue to discover new information about the early banjo, there is no collective location to maintain, interact with, and collectively analyze this important data. The proposed Banjo Sightings Database Project (BSD) will combine rare and widely-dispersed primary source material (circa 1650-1870) with appropriate and innovative technological applications, resulting in a system that not only catalogs information about the early banjo, but also establishes an interactive, peer-reviewed knowledge management system, allowing users to explore the early banjo.
I can see this being a really useful research and discovery tool. Greg is soliciting two kinds of feedback right now: (1) beyond the banjo, how might the broader implications of this project relate to your work or the work of colleagues? (2) questions or comments regarding the actual project or the white paper.
At the Association of Canadian Archivists conference last June, I presented a paper on the Helen Creighton collection, and one of the things I touched on was what a global registry of traditional music “instances” might look like. In many ways, what I was discussing is what Greg is building for the banjo. I would like to see a system that can hold information about traditional music, and I want it to compile information about a particular song – archival materials, museum materials, published sources, gray literature, recordings, etc. He uses the term “sightings,” I was using the term “instances,” but the principle is basically the same.
So a lot of what I have to say has to do with the fact that what Piedmont Folk Legacies is building for the banjo is very similar to what I am experimenting with for traditional music, specifically the Helen Creighton collection.
I was pleased to see that in Section III of the report, Greg identified the need to establish collaborative partnerships as an area that required immediate attention. Collaborative partnerships are increasingly becoming a critical component of projects like this. For the Sightings Database to be successful, the project will require the sustained participation of key institutions and organizations. It’s good to see that the project has identified the need to form these partnerships at an early stage, because when it comes to unifying information about collections held in different heritage institutions, Piedmont Folk Legacies is wading into uncharted waters.
The paper I presented on Helen Creighton was part of a panel on archival collaboration. It was fitting because the collection is distributed across four different archives. The lack of collaboration has resulted in a difficult situation for researchers and uncoordinated preservation activities by the institutions that hold the collections. I have found it especially difficult to compile information about the collections because the institutions do not have any kind of collaborative partnership to jointly manage the collection as a whole. And that is just for one collection. Even if the project does focus on the banjo as “test case,” it will only be a viable discovery tool if it is able to pull information about archival and museum holdings from many institutions. This in itself would be a major feat. If Piedmont Folk Legacies is able to create a viable prototype, it will also have succeeded in creating a collaborative model for heritage institutions.
The “Bigger Picture”
It’s not surprising to hear that many people who participated in the planning period of the project wanted to see the next phase focus on more than just the banjo. The report notes that:
While all respondents of the planning period outreach exercise found value in focusing on the banjo as a “test case,” most generally preferred to see that the Project focus on the “bigger picture.” As Project Director, the most pressing issue for Adams is to maintain a practical balance between these different communities of interest. First, he must answer to the knowledge-bearers and other stakeholders within the banjo community who desire that the “test case,” the Banjo Sightings Database Project, be fully realized. On the other hand, as the outreach efforts have clearly shown, listserv respondents and representatives of institutions within the DC-metro region, who represent broader communities and possess much greater infrastructure, desire solutions to knowledge management as part of the “bigger picture” and not necessarily based on the banjo as the “test case.”
The report seems to send contradictory information about what the advisory board actually said. Section II notes that the advisory board “regularly revisited the importance of thinking about the Project’s broader applicability to music instruments in general and largely agreed that the banjo was an excellent test case because of its multidisciplinary implications.” But Section III says most generally preferred to see the project focus on the “bigger picture.” This is confusing. Did the advisory board want the project to focus on the bigger picture or did it like the idea of using the banjo as a test case?
Adams appears to have concluded that he will focus on the former group, because he concludes the report by saying that “ultimately, this “test case” will serve as a model for how researchers collaboratively study the development, migration, transformation, and dissemination of any music instrument.”
I question the wisdom behind this decision. The advisory board had representatives for the “knowledge-bearers and other stakeholders within the banjo community,” so I’m not sure there are two communities of interest. And while I completely understand the rational behind Peidmont Folk Legacies’ interest in a banjo database (the non-profit is best known for organizing a music festival for Charlie Poole, an old-time banjo player from Eden, North Carolina), I think the advice to focus on knowledge management solutions for music instruments in general is good.
Focusing on a system that can handle all instruments obviously increases the scope and variability of the information it needs to handle. The schema for the database would need to be overhauled. But this would ensure that the system is robust enough to suit the needs of all researchers.
There is also the issue of backwards compatibility. A knowledge management system built for the banjo may not necessarily work as a model for other instruments, but a knowledge management system built for instruments would be capable of organizing information about the banjo.
Either way, I look forward to seeing where the project goes. I have a few recommendations about how to proceed:
- Abandon “Sighting” terminology. Referring to a text-based reference to a banjo as a “sighting” is a little confusing. My experience is that researchers prefer terms that are familiar and unambiguous.
I’ve been using “instances,” but I’m not sure there even needs to be a term to unify everything. It would probably be fine to refer to a banjo as a banjo and a recording as a recording.
- Incorporate descriptive and structural metadata standards. The current schema is very good, but I think the final product would benefit greatly from incorporating established standards. This could be achieved by broadly envisioning the database as several interconnected sets of data described using appropriate content standards and encoded using appropriate description standards. These might include:
- Descriptive Standards
- Structural Standards
Standards will help ensure that whatever is built is scalable and capable of interaction with other databases and information systems. This will be especially important if the database hopes to harvest information from other standards-compliant information systems.
- Add references to banjo recordings. The one type of “sighting” I felt was missing was the auditory kind. It would be nice to include references to recordings of banjo music.
- Crowdsource. This would be a perfect project to investigate the feasibility of crowdsourcing description. Or even harvesting data. Especially if the database is supposed to inform the “bigger picture,” it would be great to incorporate some more efficient ways of populating the database.
- Focus on the “Bigger Picture.” Again, I understand the rational behind narrowing the focus, but I do think the final prototype will be more useful if it is capable of handling more instruments. It would open up the database to many more researchers and reframe what the “bigger picture” actually is.
If you’re interested in seeing where Piedmont Folk Legacies takes this project, Greg Adams has a Vernacular Music Material Culture blog where he will be posting updates about what happens. It looks like Piedmont Folk Legacies plans on pursuing Level II funding. Hopefully the next phase of the project is able to build on the current prototype database and address some of the broader knowledge management needs facing the heritage community.