Celtic Literature, Digital Humanities, Modern, North America

Celtic Poets in North America – 1

This is the first of a three part blog about a Digital Humanities project (applied to Celtic Studies) on which I’m currently working, under the working title Celtic Poets in North America. In this part I’ll discuss the rationale; in part two I’ll discuss the details of the design; in part three I’ll discuss its functionality.


Most people, inside and outside of academia, are profoundly unaware of the history  of Celtic-speaking peoples in North America, of the literary expressions that they have created (and continue to create) in Celtic languages on this continent, and how important these sources are in understanding these peoples, their cultures and their experiences. Most of this lack of consciousness is simply due to the fact that these sources themselves are very largely neglected, silent, invisible, and unexplored. As I’ve explained in the Introduction to the volume Celts in the Americas, this neglect has created a self-perpetuating obstacle to the development of the study of Celtic peoples in North America.

There are many Digital Humanities projects on the go now that enrich our understanding of peoples in the Americas, some of them attempting to make accessible rare sources or representing the voices of marginalized or under-represented communities and putting them back where they belong in the larger historical narrative. To date, so far as I am aware, Celtic peoples have not benefited from such efforts. (There are a few excellent printed books of this nature, but they are not well known outside of Celtic Studies circles and have had limited impact.) I am hopeful that an online resource, freely and publicly accessible, containing data about the poetry composed in Celtic languages in North America and the poets who composed it (wherever they were born) can help to change this sad state of affairs.

The database will be inclusive of all poets composing in Breton, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic or Welsh, including those still alive – so long as their texts were composed on this continent. At this stage of design and implementation, however, I only plan on storing the metadata about these texts and people, including where the original sources can be found. That will at least be enough to bring them to peoples’ attention.

Users will be able to browse through the data, filtering items based on various criteria and viewing the results as lists, timelines or Google Maps. This will provide very powerful tools for finding texts and authors, researching and analyzing patterns, and visualizing them.

Finding the Celtic

I was awarded a Digital Initiatives grant by the NEH in the 2007-8 funding cycle to create a Digital Humanities project that I called Finding the Celtic. It was an online digital collaboratory that stored metadata about digital resources stored elsewhere (a strategy often called federated database services).


I did not have to build Finding the Celtic from scratch: instead, I customized the ARC/Collex system that was then under construction at the ARP Lab at the University of Virginia.

Still, creating Finding the Celtic was a complex challenge for a number of reasons. The code base for the ARC/Collex system was still changing and hence I had to modify a moving target. Furthermore, I naively believed in the film motto, that ”If I build it, they will come.” Surely other Celtic Studies scholars or institutions would want to contribute meta-data that would highlight their resources in a central repository – a “virtual museum” – where everyone could admire the ingenuity of Celtic cultural expression over a long period of time.

However, it was not to be. I entered metadata about 250 items by myself but received little other input. Many digital repositories for European cultural heritage have been built in the last 6 years, however, using a fairly standard metadata tagging system, so it might be much easier to collect such materials now.

This project is of a different nature than Finding the Celtic, which was meant to deal with all manner of artifacts from Celtic Europe. This project will be specific to North America and only deal with poets and poetry – at least in its present conception.

Like the previous project, however, Celtic Poets in North America will be greatly enhanced and strengthened if other scholars can contribute the information that they have to this system. While I plan on entering a few hundred entries about Scottish Gaelic poets and poems, I know very little about Breton, Cornish, Irish, Manx and Welsh equivalents.

In my next blog I’ll describe the data design. If you can contribute your specialized knowledge to this collective Celtic collaborative, we’ll all be the wiser for it.


2 thoughts on “Celtic Poets in North America – 1”

  1. Dr. Newton:
    I’ve accessed the NEH report of the Finding the Celtic repository you’d previously created and intend to share it with my advisor. We will be participating in a workshop this Fall whose goal is to create a similar repository for Medieval Norse objects. I hope to gain some useful info on the metadata and controlled vocabulary approach your project took.

    Thanks for posting!

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