About: Project History

PROJECT HISTORY

The American Religious Sounds Project (ARSP) has its roots in the Atlanta Religious Soundmap, a collaborative teaching endeavor between Isaac Weiner and Kathryn McClymond, professors in the Religious Studies Department at Georgia State University. In 2012, they began assigning students to produce audio field recordings of religious practices throughout the city of Atlanta. At the time, Weiner was finishing a book manuscript titled Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism (published by NYU Press in 2014), which analyzed the politics of American religious pluralism by attending to contests over public sounds, such as church bells, prayer calls, and amplified preaching. He was interested in sound as a medium of religious contact and conflict in U.S. history, through which diverse Americans had negotiated their place--and the place of religion--in American society. Building on this work, Weiner and McClymond hoped that inviting students to listen for the sounds of religion in their city might help them better appreciate the complex dynamics of urban religious diversity. They also thought that a digital sonic archive of urban religious life might serve as a valuable pedagogical resource for educating broader publics about American religious pluralism. To that end, they partnered with ATL Maps, a community of Georgia State and Emory University scholars who were developing a digital platform for layering data collections and historical maps in order to gain insight into Atlanta's history and development. The religious sounds collection became one of the first data sets integrated onto the ATL Maps site.

In 2013, Weiner accepted a position at Ohio State University, where he shifted his attention to the American Midwest, while McClymond continued her work in Atlanta. In 2014, Weiner partnered with Amy DeRogatis, a professor of religion and American culture at Michigan State University, to create The Religious Soundmap Project of the Global Midwest, a digital research project centered on the question: What does religion in the global Midwest sound like? Their collaboration was supported by a grant from the Humanities Without Walls (HWW) consortium, a Mellon Foundation-funded initiative that creates new avenues for cross-institutional cooperation and collaborative research in the humanities. The Religious Soundmap Project began as a summer pilot program and evolved into a two-year endeavor, running from 2014-16. During that time, Weiner and DeRogatis integrated the project into regularly scheduled courses and hired paid student employees at Ohio State and Michigan State Universities. In collaboration with local religious communities, the student research teams produced field recordings of the sounds of religious practice throughout Columbus, Ohio, and central Michigan. They edited recordings, tagged them according to standardized criteria, and uploaded them to a digital archive based at Ohio State.

The goal of the Religious Soundmap Project of the Global Midwest was to construct a digital platform that would allow general audiences to experience the religious diversity of the American Midwest through sound. To that end, student programmers at MSU developed a pilot site for presenting students' research, accompanied by images, excerpts from interviews, and short explanatory texts. This website, built using the Omeka platform, launched at the conclusion of the two-year HWW grant in August 2016.

Toward the end of the HWW funding cycle, Weiner and DeRogatis developed ambitious plans for expanding the scope of their work. These plans included a more sophisticated website, which would include enhanced search and filter capabilities, dynamic visualizations, and curated digital gallery exhibits; geographic expansion beyond the American Midwest; museum installations and traveling exhibits; and community-based workshops and partnerships. To reflect the project's change in scope, Weiner and DeRogatis gave it a new name: The American Religious Sounds Project.

A two-year grant from the Henry Luce Foundation (2016-18) supported the ARSP's initial phases. During this funding cycle, Weiner and DeRogatis worked with an Ohio State application development team to build a multi-modal digital platform, which includes a searchable archive of recordings and database-driven visualizations, inviting users to explore and listen to our audio materials. They also hired a multimedia content producer, Lauren Pond, who edits recordings and produces thematic digital exhibits, allowing for greater interpretation and contextualization of recordings. OSU Project Manager J. Caroline Toy helped to oversee the ARSP's growing research team, and organized, coded, and archived all collected materials. The project managers at MSU coordinated student researchers and assisted with other aspects of the project.

In June 2018, the American Religious Sounds Project received a second major grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. During this three-year grant cycle, the Project will expand its work through four discrete initiatives:

  1. Interpretive Scholarship: research grants to support the work of scholars using sound as a medium for studying the diversity of American religions and providing a digital platform for presenting their research;
  2. Geographic Expansion: partnering with other universities to expand the geographic scope of the ARSP audio archive. In spring 2018, we piloted this initiative at St. Louis University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Georgia State University;
  3. Digital Archive and Web Development: partnering with the Vincent Voice Library at Michigan State University to make our complete audio archive publicly available, as well as continued enhancements and upgrades to the ARSP website; and
  4. Community Engagement: museum installations, community-based workshops, and other initiatives to more fully engage publics outside of the academy in our work.

To facilitate this work, the ARSP hired a new project coordinator, Alison Furlong, to assist the co-PIs in managing all aspects of the project’s work, as well as a digital archivist to oversee the long-term maintenance and preservation of the ARSP audio archive.

In the meantime, the ARSP research team continues to produce new audio field recordings and exhibits, which will be added to the website over time; refine collection, documentation, and storage procedures; and deepen relationships with community members and other researchers interested in sound, religion, and the digital humanities. The researchers maintain a blog with regular updates on project progress, and invite further collaboration through posting opportunities on the website and through social media. Over the course of the grants, the ARSP has hosted multiple meetings of a national advisory board, both to solicit feedback and input on methods and products, and to ensure that the work adheres to strict ethical guidelines. The ARSP staff looks forward to building on these successful efforts in the years to come.

TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS

The American Religious Sounds Project has developed through several technical iterations. To design and build the pilot website of the Religious Soundmap Project of the Global Midwest in the summer of 2016, MSU undergraduate researchers used the Omeka platform. Michigan State University undergraduate graphic designers Malarie French and Will Minecki designed the site with the support of Rebecca Tegtmeyer, Assistant professor of Graphic Design in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design, Michigan State University. Undergraduate web developer Tommy Truong adapted the Omeka theme and plugins to suit the project, and content manager Marcus Field ensured that audiovisual content and data were entered into and displayed properly. Both worked with the support of Kristen Mapes, Digital Humanities Coordinator in the College of Arts and Letters, Michigan State University, and Scott Schopieray, Assistant Dean of Academic and Research Technology in the College of Arts and Letters, Michigan State University.

The current ARSP website was built on the Drupal Content Management System. The ARSP web site was designed by Michael Seufer, Creative / UI Lead for The Ohio State University ASCTech Application Development Group. Design technologies included: Adobe Creative Suite, Sketch and Invision for design, mock-ups and design collaboration. Wireframing and rapid prototyping were done in Axure RP.

Data visualizations were coded by Chris Britt and Alex Kasler, Developers with The Ohio State University ASCTech Application Development Group. The data visualizations are composed of three components: The data itself was stored within a PostgresQL database. The middleware layer was composed of a Rails 5 application that provides a series of utilities for data maintenance and processing, as well as an API to be consumed by the visualizations. The visualizations were created using a mixture of ERB, Javascript, CSS, and HAML. The system begins by utilizing PapaParse to asynchronously consume the most recent CSV datafile provided by the Rails server and creating the first tier of internal data-structures utilized by the visualization. These are then utilized using the D3.JS and Leaflet frameworks to generate the three data visualizations.

In addition to the database, the site includes multimedia exhibits built with WordPress using the Aesop Story Engine and Slider Pro plugins. Individual exhibits also use the Compact Audio Player, Knight Lab SoundCite, Knight Lab StoryMap, and Media Hovers plugins. The WordPress theme is Fluida. Our logo and wordmark were designed by Beth Binsky.