This Sounding Spirit pilot digital library features songbooks and hymnals published across the southern United States from 1850 to 1925. Spanning holdings from four partner archives, the digital library’s twenty-two books include words-only hymnals, gospel songbooks, spiritual collections, and shape-note tunebooks, demonstrating the wide variety of form, content, and presentation in southern vernacular sacred publishing. These songbooks employ competing notation systems and vary in musical style from dispersed harmony fuging tunes and plain tunes of the shape-note repertoire, to antiphonal gospel, to classically inspired arrangements of African American spirituals, to words-only hymns in Muskokee sung in unison, to tunes in oral tradition shared among southern black and white congregations.

Organized into collections that highlight texts’ associated places, populations, genres, and denominational affiliations, the digital library allows for rich engagement with songbooks and hymnals seminal in their respective eras, but historically underrepresented in both archival holdings and scholarship. These works and collections illustrate the primacy of songbooks to the dynamic encounters among white, black, and native communities navigating modernizing forces across the US South and beyond.

In selecting volumes for the pilot site, Sounding Spirit’s music bibliographer Erin Fulton, project director, Jesse P. Karlsberg, and project manager, Meredith Doster, collaborated with content consultants at each partner archive to balance the diversity of this twenty-two–volume corpus with each collection’s strengths. Additional criteria guiding the selection included contemporaneous significance, influence, rarity, and existence of digitized copies or available facsimiles.

Using the Sounding Spirit Digital Library

The Sounding Spirit digital library supports browsing, annotating, and publishing with these sacred songbooks in the Readux platform. Browse featured songbooks from the site’s home page; navigate to the “volumes” page to peruse all texts by title, author, or date published; or visit the “collections” page to browse songbooks associated with places, languages, populations, genres, or denominations.

When viewing a songbook, you can page through the book and zoom in to see details. A “more info” button brings up a songbook’s history and content, and additional information about the work.

Log in to the Sounding Spirit digital library by creating an account with your Facebook, GitHub, Google, or Twitter credentials to annotate songbooks. You can select text on a page to annotate, or select a region of a page to comment on music, illustrations, or other features.

You can export your annotated songbooks as freestanding websites or download them to preserve for later.

Learn more about Readux’s features or read the Readux terms of service.

Building the Sounding Spirit Digital Library

The Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS) collaborated on this pilot library with four archives with outstanding collections of historical songbooks:

Digitization specialists at each partner archive joined Sounding Spirit team members in formulating and implementing digitization and preservation standards. These standards were modeled on best practices and adapted to the varied equipment and workflows at each institution, the specific features of historical songbooks, and the forms of engagement enabled by this digital library.

Our digitization specifications include:

  • File type: lossless TIFF format
  • Resolution: optical resolution of 400+ ppi
  • Color: 24-bit RGB depth; accuracy <5 color units difference
  • Clarity: geometric distortion less than 2%; no visible scratches or obstructed content; clean white, grey, or black backgrounds

These digitization standards draw on the Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative (FADGI), with allowances made for individual archives’ equipment on hand. We prioritized creating accurate images useful to singers and scholars, well-suited to Readux’s deep zoom feature, and capable of supporting annotations of text derived from optical character recognition (OCR) results. Each institution digitized their included songbooks in house.

After digitization, images were prepared for the Sounding Spirit digital library by conducting post-processing according to a workflow developed by ECDS and partner archives aimed at maximizing images’ accuracy and reliability. University of Kentucky staff conducted post-processing for volumes they digitized. Sounding Spirit staff at ECDS conducted post-processing of volumes from the other three institutions. Sounding Spirit team members also conducted a study of the accuracy of leading OCR engines in recognizing the text in historical songbooks, disambiguating text from music, and accurately interpreting page layouts. This research informed the OCR performed on all volumes. Each institution followed its own preservation and access policies to ensure long-term preservation of digital files in addition to access through Sounding Spirit.

The Sounding Spirit project team organized the digitized works into collections, researched and drafted collection descriptions, volume summaries, and volume level metadata, and ingested the digitized works and accompanying descriptive entries and metadata into Readux. Erin Fulton conducted background research on volumes and collections and wrote initial drafts of most descriptive entries. (Chris Fenner drafted summaries for Folk Songs of the American Negro, and Jesse P. Karlsberg drafted the summary for Hesperian Harp.) Meredith Doster led the revision of these summaries with Jesse P. Karlsberg reviewing and approving all descriptive entries. Attributions are listed below each volume description and collection summary. Erin Fulton led the compilation of descriptive metadata, supported by Sara Palmer and content consultants at partner archives. Sara Palmer ingested the works into Readux.

Following the successful completion of the one-year planning grant that funded the digital library, Jesse P. Karlsberg and Erin Fulton drafted a white paper that charts the project’s methodologies, workflows, and interventions. Published in July 2020, “Interinstitutional Thematic Collection Development: Technical and Procedural Considerations from the Sounding Spirit Digital Library” draws on the pilot project to offer recommendations for interinstitutional collaboration in publishing collections of digitized books.

Future Plans

The Sounding Spirit team and partner archives began the second phase of this project on September 1, 2021. Over a three-year period, project staff and partners will digitize hundreds of volumes from archives at seven institutions identified in conjunction with the production of the Sounding Spirit pilot library. This expansion of the digital library will include books enumerated in the “Checklist of Southern Sacred Music Imprints, 1850–1925,” compiled under the direction of music bibliographer Erin Fulton.

In addition to adding new volumes and collections, Sounding Spirit plans to incorporate lesson plans and teaching materials for a variety of learning levels, scholarly essays, and data visualizations about the site’s songbooks into the expanded digital library. Until then, the Sounding Spirit team is excited to make these pilot collections and volumes accessible for research, teaching, and discovery.

Project Team

Emory Center for Digital Scholarship, Emory University

  • Jesse P. Karlsberg, Project Director
  • Meredith Doster, Project Manager
  • Erin Fulton, Music Bibliography Associate
  • Sara Palmer, Digital Text Specialist
  • Rachel Erin Stuart, Digital Production Associate
  • Robert A. W. Dunn, Research Associate

Niles Center and University of Kentucky Libraries, University of Kentucky

  • James Revell Carr, Content Consultant
  • Erin Fulton, Content Consultant
  • Sarah Dorpinghaus, Technical Lead
  • Crystal Heis, Digitization Specialist

Center for Popular Music, Middle Tennessee State University

  • Gregory Reish, Content Consultant
  • Rachel Morris, Technical Lead
  • Olivia Beaudry, Digitization Support

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

  • Chris Fenner, Content Consultant and Technical Lead

Pitts Theology Library and Emory University Libraries, Emory University

  • Bo Adams, Content Consultant
  • Brandon Wason, Content Consultant
  • Kyle Fenton, Technical Lead
  • Ann McShane, Technical Lead
  • Brian Methot, Digitization Support

Advisory Board

  • James Abbington, Emory University
  • Richard Manly "Bo" Adams Jr., Emory University
  • James Revell Carr, University of Kentucky
  • Derrick Fox, University of Nebraska Omaha
  • Sandy Graham, Babson College
  • Kevin Kehrberg, Warren Wilson College
  • Tammy Kernodle, Miami University of Ohio
  • Jack Martin, College of William and Mary
  • Gregory Reish, Middle Tennessee State University


Sounding Spirit is grateful to the National Endowment of the Humanities, which supported the production of this pilot digital library through a Foundations grant from the Humanities Collections and Reference Resources program.

Sounding Spirit thanks all members of the ECDS Readux project team for their support launching the digital library site, including: Jay Varner, Yang Li, Joanna Mundy, Ben Brumfield, and Sara Brumfield. We also thank ECDS co-directors Allen Tullos and Wayne H. Morse, for their support of the Sounding Spirit initiative, alongside the center’s staff, especially Chase Lovellette, Kayla Shipp, and Rob O’Reilly. We thank Debra Madera of Pitts Theology Library for her assistance with the Emory volumes included in the digital library. We thank Courtney Chartier at Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, and Yolanda Cooper, Lars Meyer, Melanie Kowalski, and Jen Doty at Emory Libraries, for their contributions to the planning and production of this site.

Equipment and Software

Digitization was performed with the following equipment: Epson Expression 11000XL scanner (CPM), i2S CopiBook scanner (UK), Epson CanoScan 8800F (SBTS), Phase One 645DF camera (Rose Library, Emory; Nakcokv Esyvhiketv), Atiz BookDrive with Canon Rebel EOS cameras (Pitts Library, Emory; remaining volumes).

Quality assurance and post-processing was conducted using: i2S Image Enhancement Software and FastStone Image Viewer (UK), Image Science Associates GoldenThread, Adobe Bridge, Adobe Camera Raw, Adobe Photoshop, and ImageMagick (Emory).

OCR, OCR assessment, digital library ingest was performed with: Google Cloud Vision and the ocrevalUAtion tool.

The open source Readux platform source code is hosted on the ECDS Github account. This project’s OCR evaluation and Readux ingest processes are accessible on the Sounding Spirit GitHub account.