The People, the Music, and the Context: New Frameworks for Discovering Relationships in Cultural Heritage Collections (February 27, 2020)

Music Library Association Annual Meeting 2020, Norfolk, VA


Summary written by Kristi Bergland, University of Minnesota

Session presenters: Daniel Pitti, University of Virginia; Lynnsey Weissenberger, Irish Traditional Music Archive


In this session, Daniel Pitti spoke about the resource Social Networks and Archival Context Cooperative (SNAC), which was created to describe corporate bodies, persons and families, and link the relationships between them and the documentation of their lives and work held in archives around the world. In a pre-recorded presentation, Lynnsey Weissenberger described the linked data tools developed at the Irish Traditional Music Archive through the LITMUS project to describe and visualize the complex relationships within Irish traditional music and dance.

Daniel Pitti is the Director of the Social Networks and Archival Context Cooperative, University of Virginia Library. He began his presentation with an introduction to SNAC, a “cooperatively maintained resource for the description of corporate bodies, persons and families (CPF) interrelated to one another and to the historical resources that provide evidence of their lives and work”. Cultural heritage resources can be challenging to discover outside their repositories and labor intensive to adequately describe within them. SNAC provides benefit to both cultural heritage curators and researchers alike. Spreading the costly burden of resource identity management and description through a shared platform allows cultural heritage centers to build on each other’s work rather than duplicating it while creating a network linking holdings of resources in repositories around the world. The creation of CPF entities allows each participating institution to contribute the relevant data from their holdings which build a more complete representation of the CPFs and their social relationships. Researchers benefit from having ready access to these “social-professional-intellectual networks” as well as having access to CPF related resources at many distinct repositories, both critical functions of historical research.

Pitti provided a brief historical overview of SNAC. Initial funding was provided by the NEH and the Mellon Foundation as a research and development project. Since 2015 it has been transitioning to an ongoing, cooperatively maintained tool and community of users with a common understanding and goals. Pieces are in place and are being developed to expand the program and onboard new institutions interested in participating.  This will include training editors (SNACSchool), methods for ingesting new data sets using web services and OpenRefine, and future development of a SNAC plugin to ArchivesSpace.

Asked to address the challenge of describing people ethically, Pitti shared the SNAC Ethos statement, an acknowledgement of the biases inherent in the description process, and of concern for describing people in a manner that respects the people’s sense of their identity. With respect to the demographic classification of people, Pitti pointed out that demographic description helps researchers identify groups, opens up new possibilities and potential for research and broader understanding while acknowledging that when one person describes another, it is an ethical challenge. Issues of gender, ethnic, cultural origins, and race are particularly challenging as they can be used to target and discriminate against those communities. SNAC has an Editorial Standards and Policy Working Group which has developed a set of guiding principles with which to approach this sensitive work. Pitti described a number of SNAC projects striving to represent the historically underrepresented, including the Collective Biographies of Women project, contributing descriptions of women; Algonquin Indian identity project; collaborating with the Enslaved Project to import enslaved identities; a documentation project focusing on anthropological records that document indigenous North American persons and groups; and the History Makers, interviews with thousands of African-Americans over the past 20 years.

Pitti ended the presentation with screen shots of SNAC, demonstrating resources relating to Leonard Bernstein. The biographical tab showed a collection of biographical statements, some more useful than others, and demonstrated the function of SNAC “say it once, say it better, share it with everybody”. The resources tab listed resources by role, title, and holding repository, which could be also be mapped. The relationships tab has functionality to help reveal social relationships between CPFs. In the Bernstein example, this tool helped show how Bernstein is related to Copland through identifying the relationship they both had to a given document. Pitti shared a graphic of Bernstein’s social network depicting a subset of the first degree of separation from him. A connection graph at two degrees of separation showed a much denser display and gave a real sense of the expanse of relationships capable of being depicted. A demonstration of the holdings display from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives showed how individual institution’s holdings appear, as well as how they could be extracted, manipulated in OpenRefine, and replaced.

Lynnsey Weissenberger is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow at the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, Ireland. The Linked Irish Traditional Music project (LITMUS) “seeks to improve searching of and access to web-based Irish traditional music, song, and dance resources” by construction of a linked data ontology and framework for implementation. Music, dance, geographic, and personal relationships expressed as linked data will allow for richer discovery and data reuse by practitioners and researchers, and it is hoped that the ontology and framework will be of further use to other cultural heritage institutions. Current ontologies were constructed around the needs of classical and commercial music models and don’t meet the needs of folk and traditional music. One of the goals of this new ontology is to incorporate elements from the oral transmission of music, allowing them to be described and related to one another in the vernacular of the traditional musicians and dancers, thereby preserving the rich diversity of that tradition. Another consideration is to gather and describe information about the tunes themselves, the relationships between the musicians, and trace their influences.

Aspects of Irish traditional music and dance that benefit particularly from a linked data approach include the relationships between musicians and various ensembles they have performed in. In the context of Irish traditional music and dance, important relationships include musician to musician relationships, between individuals, families, ensembles; musician to music relationships, which are more loosely defined, including “associated with” and “influenced by”; music to dance relationships, dance historically connected to music, involving types of dance and conflicting terminology. Weissenberger demonstrated triples created in musician – musician relationships with subject – recorded with, son of, ornamentation influenced by, repertoire influenced by, played in a band with – object identities pulled from Wikidata and MusicBrainz sources. Weissenberger demonstrated how these triples can be used to tell the stories using the linked data. The ontology allows for description of the informal relationships that are common in Irish traditional music, such as describing influence, instruction, impact, reach, accomplishments, musical/dance outputs, and roles through language used by the performers themselves. One group of ontology properties were developed through an analysis of liner notes of 30 commercial albums. Two bilingual vocabularies were developed, one vocabulary of instruments in traditional music and dance, and a second tune type vocabulary to account for the different types of tunes. Tunes were linked through Tunepal, Gradam Tunes through Port, performers through MusicBrainz, and tune types and instruments through Wikidata and the developed LITMUS vocabularies.

Potential future applications of LITMUS that look beyond Irish traditional music include other European music traditions that have similar informal learning environments, oral traditions, and familial group relationships. They would need to develop their own vocabularies, but could build on the structure established through LITMUS