Is this digital humanities yet?: testing a new online resource for music and politics

Every researcher collects more data than they know what to do with, especially during a PhD, and especially if they’re the sort of person who never throws anything away. In my case, it was thousands of articles to do with music and entertainment from the Croatian press between 1990 and 2007 – which occasionally resurface when I search my hard drive and make me realise how much more there is that I didn’t use in my PhD and book – but also hundreds of Croatian song lyrics, mainly to do with national and regional identity, some of which have been hanging around ever since my Masters dissertation in 2004.

I’ve never really known what to do with these. Some extracts made it into the PhD thesis, got taken out again for the still-almost-over-its-contractual-length book, and got reinserted for the translated version, where they wouldn’t affect the word count so badly. But mostly, they’ve just been knocking about.

When I started creating my own content for a module on ‘music and resistance’ at Southampton (the origin of my deciding to develop a module called ‘Music, Politics and Violence’ at Hull), I assembled and translated a smaller set of lyrics, this time mainly from Serbia and Bosnia, for use in two of the sessions I was introducing. Some of these have carried over into Music, Politics and Violence, plus some of the material from Croatia. Even so, I still have an awful lot of material just knocking about.

For some time I’ve been wondering about making the whole lot available as a resource. What pushed this up the agenda was a lecture visit I made to Munich and Halle last month (expertly organised by Isabel Ströhle at Munich and Eckehard Pistrick at Halle, with support from the Schroubek Fonds östliches Europa), to give two talks on music and ethnopolitical conflict. In Munich I was talking to an audience of students, researchers and members of the public interested in south-east European culture and politics, whereas in Halle my talk had been fitted into the programme of an ethnomusicology module on south-east Europe. Hearing what the rest of the module had covered made me look again at these collected songs and think about how I could present it in a way that would be useful to other people who teach about or study these matters, as well as myself and my own students.

I don’t have experience of creating databases or hosting sites, so as a pilot project this month I decided to set up a WordPress.com site for the collection using whatever searching and browsing tools could be built into it. Each song is presented on a separate WordPress post, with a video embedded from YouTube, a note about the year of the song and the source of the video, its original lyrics, and a translation. At this stage there are approximately 300 songs in the collection, although the sample is still full of gaps and couldn’t be described as systematic in any way. The site is also accompanied with a bibliography (also incomplete…) and an index of topics, which compensates for some – but perhaps not many – of the limitations that using a blog structure rather than a database structure has imposed.

What I suppose I had in mind was something like an online version of James von Geldern and Richard Stites’s anthology Mass Culture in Soviet Russia. This makes it possible to incorporate popular-culture sources from Lenin’s/Stalin’s Soviet Union into teaching where neither the tutor nor the students necessarily know the original language (for instance, I’ve been able to provide lyrics to a terribly popular 1920s pop song about workers’ control of the brick factory, which I can then use as one of the examples in a lecture on music and the USSR).

I soft-launched the site, Music and Politics in South-East Europe, yesterday by posting about it on Facebook, where I’m connected to dozens of other people who teach in the same field, and asked for feedback. If you’re somebody who might use this material in teaching, might be or have been in a class that could use it, or are any other kind of user who might find the site useful, I’d be grateful for your feedback too: the site is still very much in a test phase (although realistically there are some problems that I may not be able to fix, at least not without re-hosting and re-designing the site, which is beyond my capacity as things stand).

There are many limitations I’m already aware of:

  • The test version of the site contains no contextual information (e.g. on the background of musicians, on political and historical allusions in the lyrics, and so on). In my own teaching, this would be provided through other material; I still need to know what contextual information others would need for it to be useful to them.
  • Limitations in regional coverage. There’s no reason why the site couldn’t expand to cover south-east Europe more generally, but I can only translate from Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Serbian and Serbo-Croat. (They’re mutually intelligible, so that’s less impressive than it sounds.) Even as former Yugoslavia goes, there’s next to no coverage of Slovenia, Macedonia or Albanian-language music from Kosovo within the collection, and there’s also very little on Montenegro. Material from Croatia and/or relating to my own research interests is over-represented. With extra contributors, this could be changed, and I hope it will be, but the deeper structural problems of the site need resolving first.
  • Limitations in coverage of content. This relates to the non-systematic way in which I was stocking up initial content to get it ready for testing. In particular, there’s not enough hip hop as there needs to be, for the pragmatic reason that the texts are longer and my focus last week was on broadening the range of the collection so that I could get a better feel for how the navigation could work. There’s also not enough coverage of material in dialect as there should be (to do this properly, I’d need dictionaries that I don’t have).
  • I don’t have exact dates for many of the songs. The dating is much better with the Croatia material (where sometimes I even know the release day) than the rest of it. There are a number of songs from the Bosnian War that I can’t as yet find precise origin years for at all.
  • Consistency of translation seems good to my eye, but then that’s my eye. Others will probably spot inconsistencies or even errors.
  • Attrition of videos will be a problem over time. Sometimes users close their accounts; more often, YouTube closes them for them after copyright complaints. I’ve tried to provide official video sources or videos from channels that have been around and stable for several years wherever possible, but this is still going to be a risk. This in itself probably means the site wouldn’t be a fundable project, which means that I couldn’t for instance hire a research assistant to expand the collection into other languages, and I don’t want to develop this further if it would only be feasible through unpaid labour.
  • There are difficulties with search. Many south-east European words and names contain diacritical marks, so the site is full of these. The sidebar search box only works if the right diacriticals are typed in, and users may not know how to or be able to do this. This becomes an obstacle to looking up many places and personal names.
  • It would be nice to add custom text to the search box widget to remind people of this, and perhaps even provide buttons they can click to enter a diacritical character, but I can’t.
  • The site architecture is fundamentally that of a blog, not a database (which I wouldn’t have been able to create on my own). It’s not possible, for instance, to create advanced search options that would depend on querying a database, and on each post having suitable metadata. If you want to see ‘all songs that mention Kosovo and came out in 1999’, a database would be able to show you; this architecture can’t.
  • Content instead has to be organised through tags. Each post has a number of tags for themes, references, artists, years, places (place tags combine place of origin and place discussed – this may cause confusion). Clicking on a tag brings up a page of all posts tagged with that tag, in reverse chronological order. The problem is that these lists can’t be sorted, so a significant source that went into the collection early will be at the bottom of the list, and something more marginal will be on top. This currently worst affects the ‘Croatia’ tag, which has more than 150 items, but would get worse with other tags as the database scaled up.
  • WordPress’s default settings cause some problems. The header image is currently WordPress stock and needs replacing with something original. (It does vaguely resemble a south-east European river or lake, but probably isn’t one.) Also, the ‘older posts’ link at the bottom of the front page is currently infinite-scrolling rather than loading a separate ‘page 2’. I turned infinite scrolling off on the morning of the launch, but it didn’t seem to make any difference. This is a problem because eventually the page it generates becomes unmanageable.

And there must be more things I don’t know about. Have a go with it. Think of something you could do with it. See if you can do it. If not, tell me about it (leave a comment here or email catherine.baker at hull.ac.uk). I don’t know if everything is fixable, but I still want to see where this could go.

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