Arts & Culture

UK’s Niles Center Joins Sounding Spirit Team for Launch of Digital Library of American Sacred Music

photo of "Polished Pearls" music book
"Polished Pearls for Sunday Schools and Protracted Meetings" by T. J. Shelton and J. H. Rosecrans, published by Fillmore Bros in 1876, is one of five books Niles Center's is making available through new digital library.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 23, 2020) — The Sounding Spirit Digital Library team, including University of Kentucky’s John Jacob Niles Center for American Music, has announced the launch of its inaugural digital library. The product of a one-year National Endowment for the Humanities' (NEH) Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Foundations grant, the pilot digital library features songbooks and hymnals published across the U.S. South from 1850 to 1925.

Project Director and Editor-in-Chief Jesse P. Karlsberg, senior digital scholarship strategist of Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS), hopes that the digital library will increase the visibility of and engagement with significant songbooks that remain undervalued in the study of American sacred music. A federated collection spanning holdings from four partner archives, the Sounding Spirit digital library features 22 books of vernacular sacred music including words-only hymnals, gospel songbooks, spirituals collections and shape-note tunebooks.

Curated into collections that highlight people, places, genres and denominational affiliations of American sacred music, the digital library allows for dynamic interaction with songbooks and hymnals seminal in their respective eras, but historically underrepresented in both archival holdings and scholarship.

ECDS collaborated on this pilot library with four partner archives whose holdings complement Sounding Spirit’s research focus: Pitts Theology Library at Emory University, the John Jacob Niles Center for American Music at the University of Kentucky, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Archives and Special Collections and the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University.

In addition to collaborating with collection stewards and center directors on library content, the planning grant made possible an engaged dialogue across institutional lines about both access and barriers to digital technologies, best practices for digitization and preservation, and strategies for representing the complex interplay in these songbooks between text and music through optical character recognition (OCR). Sounding Spirit staff worked with archivists and digitization specialists at all partner archives to build workflows responsive to individual capacity while respecting project specifications.

UK Libraries Director of Digital Services Sarah Dorpinghaus noted the importance of the project’s research into inter-institutional digital workflows, “Cultural heritage institutions constantly strive to increase and improve online access to their materials, yet we often don’t have the capacity to build and support specialized digital repositories on our own. Therefore, collaborative projects, like Sounding Spirit, that leverage subject and technical expertise are crucial. We learn so much from working closely together to explore new ideas and techniques. Ultimately this results in more efficient workflows and tools behind the scenes and an improved digital access experience for the public.”

This digital library is part of the ECDS’s Sounding Spirit initiative, a research lab and publishing collaborative that encourages engagement with American sacred songbooks. In addition to developing thematic collections, Sounding Spirit is publishing groundbreaking print and digital annotated facsimile editions of key Southern songbooks in partnership with the University of North Carolina Press. Five forthcoming editions complement this library’s collections of Southern vernacular songbooks by exemplifying how rich scholarly engagement with these texts shifts our understanding of American music history.

Sounding Spirit’s digital library and editions are built using the Readux platform. A research and publishing tool, Readux foregrounds volumes’ visual appearance, retaining a given book’s format, design, and typography as well as its textual content. Readux also facilitates research, teaching and publishing with digitized books from diverse archival locations.

The Sounding Spirit team and partner archives are already at work on the next phase of the digital library, planning to digitize hundreds of volumes identified during this planning grant process. Music bibliography associate Erin Fulton, a UK musicology doctoral candidate from Amy, Kansas, directed the compilation of the “Checklist of Southern Sacred Music Imprints, 1850–1925” that will guide the next phase of the project.

As a dataset, the checklist already offers rich opportunities for researching the contours of American sacred songbook publishing. In addition to assembling basic bibliographic data otherwise dispersed across the catalogs of numerous repositories, the checklist includes data points that standard catalog records do not encompass. For instance, information about denominational orientation, known distributors and notation style is clearly indicated wherever discernible.

The team also plans to incorporate lesson plans and teaching materials for a variety of learning levels, scholarly essays and data visualizations about the site’s songbooks into the expanded Sounding Spirit digital library site.

Members of the Sounding Spirit team, including UK Niles Center Director James Revell Carr, recently gave a virtual presentation on their work titled “Building Bridges, Sounding Spirits: Digitizing American Music” at the 46th annual Conference of the Society for American Music, held July 16-18.

Sounding Spirit invites audiences to begin exploring the initial batch of songbooks in the pilot digital library. Scholars, educators and practitioners of all kinds are welcome. The project team hopes users will take full advantage of the platform’s features to engage the texts and textual communities whose publishing histories and singing practices can reframe our understanding of American sacred music — one text at a time.

“Digital humanities projects like Sounding Spirit are more relevant than ever in a world trying to move forward during the COVID-19 pandemic, because they make scholarly resources accessible to researchers from the safety of their own homes,” Carr said. “We are grateful to be part of this project because the collections of the Niles Center are extraordinary, and we want them to be available and useful for anyone with an interest in the history of music in the United States.”

The John Jacob Niles Center for American Music is a collaborative research and performance center maintained by UK's College of Fine Arts, School of Music and Libraries.

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