Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Planning Period: Objectives and Indicators

Dear Readers,

I hope you had a chance to review my first two blog posts. As Project Director, I found it quite satisfying to publish these posts and share basic information about the project as well as the banjo as the "test case."

One of the many challenges this planning period posed was how to structure our work. We wanted to be able to not only capture the perspectives of the Project's Advisory Board, but also those groups that would be interested in "the bigger picture." George Wunderlich and I solved this issue by creating a series of objectives and indicators, which we included in the original NEH proposal. Since the proposal was selected for support, the objectives and indicators became the primary guiding mechanism driving our work throughout the actual planning period.

The purpose of this post is to provide you with the objectives and indicators we used. They are provided below, beneath my signature. I will provide additional information in subsequent posts.

Thank you for your time and ongoing consideration!


Focus of the Planning Period: Objectives and Indicators

The defining event of the planning period was the Two-Day Meeting of the Advisory Board for the Banjo Sightings Database Project, held at the National Museum for Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD on June 4-5, 2009. The primary focus of the meeting was to outline a work plan and next steps for the Project by addressing a series of predefined objectives and indicators,[1] which were used as a springboard for all discussions.

Objective 1: Establish and Outline Requirements:

Indicator 1.1: Technical Requirements: Identify the most appropriate platform and database software that is open source and scalable to the Project’s data collecting needs, making sure it is interoperable with new media, which can then be aligned to create a strong, interactive web presence. This includes metadata architecture, multimedia requirements, programming outputs, and outlining best practices.

Indicator 1.2: Content Requirements: Map out the types of data to be collected, including measurements, a controlled vocabulary, and multimedia outputs consisting of audio, video, digital photographs, and three-dimensional imaging.

Indicator 1.3: Intellectual Property and Other Legal Considerations and Requirements: Consider the maintenance of intellectual property rights for scholarly analyses and interpretations of database content, copyright issues for images of three-dimensional objects as well as confirming content found in the public domain, and maintaining confidentiality of private collectors’ personal information vs. those materials found in public collections.

Indicator 1.4: Protocol Requirements: Outline a reasonable and professional protocol for approaching public institutions and private collectors with information about the Project and soliciting the inclusion of information about their materials within the database system. This includes contacting individuals or institutions, scheduling appointments, and conducting onsite visits as a representative of the Project.

Objective 2: Creating a Banjo Sightings Database Work Plan: Putting the Project into Perspective

Indicator 2.1: Clarify tasks that will ensure project development. Outline long- and short-term objectives and indicators for a successful Banjo Sightings Database Project.

Indicator 2.2: Produce an action plan that outlines next steps based on long- and short-term objectives (Indicator 2.1) that will result in a formal Banjo Sightings Database Project Work Plan. This includes naming each phase of development and the types of supporting documentation that must be present (e.g., planning checklists, technical requirements for each task, and documentation of planning efforts).

Indicator 2.3: Describe what an NEH Level II Start-Up Grant proposal should look like for the development and production phase of the Banjo Sightings Database Project (see page 12 for current NEH Level II guidelines).

Objective 3: Identifying Stakeholders for Long-Term Maintenance, Sponsorship, Partnership, and Development:

Indicator 3.1: Continue to identify institutions, groups, and individuals interested in contributing to the Project, acting as sponsors, and participating in the future development of the Banjo Sightings Database Project.

Objective 4: Compose a Banjo Sightings Database White Paper

Indicator 4.1: Adams will compose a white paper outlining the Project and lessons learned during the NEH Level I Start-Up Grant planning period.

[1] The Project Objectives and Indicators outlined in this section are slightly modified from the original Project Objectives and Indicators submitted to NEH in October 2008. This is primarily the case with Objective 2: Creating a Banjo Sightings Database Work Plan: Putting the Project into Perspective.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Banjo as a "Test Case"

Dear Readers,

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, because of NEH's support, George Wunderlich and I shared an important opportunity in conducting a Two-Day Meeting on June 4-5, 2009 with an Advisory Board to discuss how the early history of the banjo (ca 1620-1870) could serve as a "test case" in reframing how researchers interact with one another and perform research within a Digital Humanities setting. The purpose of today's blog post is to introduce the members of the Project's Advisory Board and share information about how the banjo was used as a "test case" during the Two-Day Meeting.

Advisory Board members included:

· Bruce Ambacher, Ph.D., College of Information Studies, University of Maryland

· James F. Bollman, Collector, Author, Banjo Historian*

· Rex Ellis, Ph.D., National Museum of African American History and Culture (serving in a personal capacity)

· John Huerta, General Counsel, Smithsonian Institution (retired), Collector

· Kari Kraus, Ph.D., College of Information Studies, University of Maryland

· Darcy Kuronen, Curator of Musical Instruments, Museum of Fine Art, Boston

· Thomas Scheinfeldt, Ph.D., Managing Director, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University

· Peter Szego, Early Banjo Scholar, Collector

· Robert B. Winans, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Gettysburg College, Banjo Scholar, Collector

*Bollman was the only Advisory Board member unable to attend the actual Two-Day Meeting, but did receive all correspondence regarding the Two-Day Meeting along with other Advisory Board members.

Focus on the banjo (the test case)

The initial exchange between Advisory Board members began with the questions, “Why the banjo?" and "Why the Banjo Sightings Database?” Discussions led to at least two overarching impressions—one on the story of the banjo and, the other, the deeper, untapped value in using the banjo as a test case for the project. First, focus was placed on the story of the banjo, which is unique and largely unknown outside some corners of academia and the traditional music community. Attendees discussed the banjo’s nearly 400-year history and the fact that for the first 220 years of that history, European and European American observers exclusively identified the instrument as an African American instrument. Emphasis was placed on the banjo’s West African heritage and its potential links to a range of distinct plucked lute traditions found throughout West Africa today. The presentation also included a series of maps outlining the geography of West African plucked lute traditions, early banjo references found throughout the Caribbean and parts of South/Central America, and the banjo's transmission and dissemination in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The banjo historians in attendance also shared how the banjo ascended into American popular culture in the 1830s and 1840s under the auspices of blackface minstrelsy, America’s first major form of popular music and popular culture export.

Attendees held discussions about banjo-related primary source material including extant musical instruments, images and iconography, and period descriptions of instruments, musicians, and performances. Surviving instruments are generally made with gourd, calabash, or wooden hoop resonators, necks of varying shapes, sizes, and materials, and unique craftsmanship where most surviving instruments are literally one-of-a-kind (since commercial banjo manufacturing was only in its infancy in the 1840s and 1850s). Images of the early banjo begin to appear by the late 17th century and continue to surface in almost every historical medium—hand drawings, etchings, paintings, lithographs, sheet music covers, and photography. Throughout its early history, European and European-American observers were almost exclusively the authors of period descriptions about banjos, banjo players, and musical performances. These descriptions are significant in that they help researchers contextualize the provenance of the banjo as an instrument of the African Diaspora.

Second, the Advisory Board reached a general consensus for the timeliness of focusing on the banjo as a test case for the Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant Program. The Banjo Sightings Database Project offers the chance for researchers to more deeply explore the banjo’s provenance, crossing many geographic, racial, social, commercial, and cultural borders. It provides an excellent model for studying music instrument development, migration, transformation, and dissemination. The banjo strongly reflects many types of culturally encoded content present throughout the history of slavery, emancipation, reconstruction, and has always served a functional social purpose for both vernacular and professional musicians.

The focus of the Banjo Sightings Database Project is not an old story recounting generations of scholarly inquiry. While many scholars, musicians, and listeners have long appreciated and acknowledged the musical offerings provided by banjo players, a deeper interest in the complex multicultural history of the banjo has only taken hold in recent decades (e.g., Dena Epstein's Sinful Tunes and Spirituals: Black Folk Music to the Civil War, 1977, 2003). Knowledge bearers of this deeper history include scholars, collectors, historians, musicians, amateur researchers, and enthusiasts. Yet, it has only been in the last twenty years that the material culture of the early banjo has become increasingly available as significant portions of these primary sources are often in the hands of private collectors. For example, if researchers wish to conduct an analysis of extant early banjos, they must receive a personal invitation from one of at least 55 private collectors who maintain 181 of the 207 known earliest surviving instruments.[1] The development of a readily-accessible, comprehensive, web-based database of banjo history, research, artifacts, and interpretation will not only present what is currently known about the early banjo, but also promote the continued investigation of this iconic instrument and its importance to America’s musical, cultural, and historical landscape.

There is much more to share on this topic, but I will save it for another day.

Thank you for reading,


[1] This information is based on the inventory initially developed by George Wunderlich, but that is now expanded and maintained by Greg C. Adams of all known early banjos and their current locations.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Banjo Sightings Database Project (Basic Information)

For those interested in multiculturalism, history, and technology, this project is for you!

Few musical instruments are more closely linked to American history than the banjo. From its origins in the 17th century Caribbean as an African American folk instrument with a West African heritage through its 19th century transformation into a centerpiece of American popular culture, the banjo is an iconic instrument whose impact is woven into the multi-cultural fabric of the American experience. As scholars, researchers, and enthusiasts continue to discover new information about the early banjo, there is no available system in which to maintain, interact with, and collectively analyze this important data. The proposed Banjo Sightings Database Project (BSD) will combine information about rare and widely dispersed primary source material (circa 1620–1870) 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. Users will be able to explore the early banjo from structural, cultural, and historical perspectives.

Level I Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant funding ($13,889, outright) was awarded to the fiscal sponsor Piedmont Folk Legacies, Inc. (PFL), a not-for-profit 501(c)(3), of Eden, North Carolina to support “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.”[1] The planning period of April-September 2009 allowed Greg Adams (Project Director and Principal Investigator) and George Wunderlich (Co-Principal Investigator) to convene a two-day meeting (held on June 4-5, 2009) with an Advisory Board to discuss the test case, entitled the Banjo Sightings Database Project (BSD). The purpose of the two-day meeting was to allow Adams and Wunderlich to draw on the Advisory Board’s knowledge and expertise to address key objectives and indicators, develop a foundation for a functional project work plan, and outline next steps. The remaining portion of the planning period was designed for Adams to conduct follow-up research, outreach, and focus the project toward Level-II funding.

This project has many hurdles to overcome, but, thanks to NEH, it has received an important empowering boost towards becoming a reality!

Stay tuned,

Greg C. Adams

[1] Excerpted from National Endowment for the Humanities, Awards and Offers, March 2009 (http://neh.gov/news/archive/pdf/Awards_09Mar_Pt3_NCtoWI.pdf)