Sounding Spirit Receives $344,687 NEH Grant for its Sacred Music Digital Library

Sounding Spirit Receives $344,687 NEH Grant for its Sacred Music Digital Library

Sounding Spirit project director Jesse P. Karlsberg has received a third grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to continue the pioneering work of his research lab that promotes collaborative engagement with southern sacred songbooks. This $344,687 grant from the NEH’s Humanities Collections and References Resources (HCRR) program builds on the success of a one-year HCRR-funded planning project co-administered by Karlsberg and managing editor and project manager Meredith Doster that produced a pilot digital library featuring twenty-two books from four partner archives. Karlsberg and Doster will lead a multi-institutional team anchored at Emory University’s Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) in a three-year project expanding the Sounding Spirit digital library to include 1,284 additional books of vernacular sacred music from the US South published between 1850 and 1925. The digital library will complement Sounding Spirit’s annotated facsimile editions of five influential books of sacred southern vernacular music. The scholarly editions series is co-published by the University of North Carolina Press and ECDS and made possible by an NEH Scholarly Editions and Translations grant received in 2018.

The four digital library archival partners will be joined by two new contributors, together holding an impressive range of southern sacred song:

The expanded Sounding Spirit digital library will pair the rich holdings of these new and returning partners with metadata and descriptive entries that place each work in cultural context. The Sounding Spirit project team will collaborate with leading scholars and practitioners to organize all volumes into collections that highlight communities of use, places of origin, genres, and formats. The digital library will be made freely available to the public on a site built using the ECDS-developed, state-of-the-art Readux platform. Building on workflows developed and vetted during the yearlong planning process, contributing archives will digitize selected works at high levels of quality and consistency. Sounding Spirit’s project team will conduct optical character recognition (OCR) and music information retrieval (MIR) on digitized volumes, collecting information about the corpus’ musical and textual contents. Each book will also be accompanied by standard metadata to facilitate interoperability with the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), increasing the works’ discoverability. These fields will be supplemented by additional descriptive metadata that incorporate and expand on research conducted to produce the “Checklist of Southern Sacred Music Imprints, 1850–1925.” Compiled by music bibliographer Erin Fulton and project director Karlsberg, this checklist was a major deliverable of the pilot grant and serves as a blueprint for the library’s expansion.

In addition to making this corpus of sacred southern song accessible, the NEH grant will support the research and writing of 425 volume summaries, 100 collection descriptions, and 15 bibliographic essays that will orient readers to the works and their makers, contributing to both the use and understanding of these materials. Editorial lead Meredith Doster will coordinate a research and writing campaign that invites scholars, practitioners, and students to join in the work of framing the library’s materials. These scholarly entries will connect volumes and collections to the library’s foci of race, place, religion, culture, and genre, ensuring that this large-scale digitization project produces an archive intentionally calibrated to questions and considerations of equity across several lines of difference.

The Sounding Spirit digital library will expand the canon of American sacred music by including songbooks from a wide range of underrepresented populations not yet fully acknowledged as important contributors to American history. These music books document little-known publishing practices such as the hymnals and missionizing texts of regional denominations; the words-only hymnals made for displaced Creek, Cherokee, and Choctaw populations; the prolific publishing of black Pentecostal Christians such as holiness minister C. P. Jones; and the music publishing of Polish, Czech, Greek, and German immigrant populations. The sacred songbooks included in the digital library refract historical events such as the Civil War, the rise of the New South, and the early waves of the Great Migration through diverse perspectives situated at the margins of the then-emerging industrial book trade. These perspectives include diverse voices and communities spanning an expansive definition of the US South and its diasporas, as well as a wide range of denominational affiliations. Individually and collectively, these works have the potential to change the way researchers, teachers, and members of the public access and understand music’s relationship to American history, culture, and practice.

Jesse P. Karlsberg, Sounding Spirit project director, technical lead, editor-in-chief, and ECDS senior digital scholarship strategist will collaborate with managing editor and project manager Meredith Doster in advancing this initiative. Digital text specialist Sarah Palmer, software engineer Jay Varner, digital asset librarian Ann McShane, and music bibliographer Erin Fulton will contribute to Emory’s efforts, joined on the project staff by digitization supervisor Sarah Dorpinghaus of the University of Kentucky. A new slate of advisory board members will join digitization specialists, archivists, and content experts from each of the six partner archives to round out the project team.

In the funding announcement, NEH acting chairman Adam Wolfson described grant recipients as embodying “excellence, intellectual rigor, and a dedication to the pursuit of knowledge, even as our nation and the humanities community continue to face the challenges of the pandemic.” Sounding Spirit looks forward to collaborating with all partners on the expansion of this digital library in the service of transformative public-facing humanities scholarship in this season of compounding challenge. At the conclusion of the grant period, Sounding Spirit plans to stage a series of physical exhibitions showcasing the library at multiple partner institutions. A planned 2024 symposium at Emory University will feature performances and interactive singing sessions that encourage scholarship and public engagement with the digital library’s works.

Ready? Set? Digitize!