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Bodleian Curatorial Roundtable

In June of 2006, the EBBA team traveled to Oxford, UK, for a curatorial roundtable with the Bodleian Library. There, EBBA and the Bodleian team working on their Broadside Ballads Online shared theories and ideas about digitizing English broadside ballads. Each of us explained our methodology and discussed ways of moving forward. Below are summaries of the position we presented at the time.

Grappling with Protean Archives

EBBA's goal is to make seventeenth-century broadside ballads fully accessible as texts, art, music, and cultural records of the period. We currently provide three types of high-quality images of the ballads: ballad sheet facsimiles and facsimile transcriptions, and album facsimilies. In addition, we supply recordings of the ballads whenever a tune is extant and extensive cataloging. We offer both basic and advanced search functions that allow readers easily to find collections or individual ballads as well as their constituent parts or makers by a variety of means. We also offer background essays on the various ballad collections included in EBBA and on ballad culture generally as well as other helpful ballad resources. For more about the EBBA project, see About Us.

The following sections lay out EBBA's philosophy about the protean nature of ballads and the difficulty of pinning them down under consistent standards. First, Holding to Standards provides examples of the many standards employed in the cataloguing of the wide range of metadata for EBBA's sources. The Protean Challenge: Shifty/Shifting Standards details the unstable nature of existing cataloguing systems while Protean Ephemera: Broadside Ballads provides examples of the shifting nature of ephemera like broadside ballads. Next, The Menelean EBBA Archivist shows examples of some of the approaches through which EBBA has managed to pin down the protean ballads. Finally, The Rootmass of the Woodblock is a talk on the protean nature of the ballad's illustrations given by Associate Director Carl Stahmer and Project Manager Megan Palmer.

Holding to Standards

EBBA’s database is format agnostic. The database does not follow any single metadata standard.

Agnostic Data Storage Example

Agnostic Data Storage Example 2

Agnostic Data Storage Examples (1) and (2)

We provide for interoperability and object reuse and exchange (ORE) through MARC and TEI, crosswalking according to the most current standards available.

We also plan in the near future to provide a static archive gateway to our complete holdings that will make it interoperable according to Open Archives Initiative (OAI) standards.

We catalogue a wide-range of metadata for our sources. In general, we aim for MARC and TEI at a thin level for interchangeability in ORE, supplemented with content-specific thicker metadata sets, some custom-developed and some with a wide range of standard sources. Our catalogue is heavily indebted to Helen Weinstein, who compiled the Catalogue of the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. (Weinstein follows F.T. Bowers’s Principles of Bibliographic Description and Philip Gaskell’s A New Introduction to Bibliography). We use thin Library of Congress subject headings, plus carefully researched date and tune information, together with custom-developed keyword taxonomy for both ballads and woodcut impressions, in each case designed by scholars specifically to reflect the content.

Bibliographic Catalog
[Pepys Ballads1] Woodcut Impressions
Tunes / Recordings

The Protean Challenge: Shifty/Shifting Standards

Even the most apparently rule-based standards and cataloguing systems are generally unstable in nature:

  • ESTC catalogues the changes in format of ballads and their titles differently
    • For example, titles for ballads showing multiple titles are sometimes separated out into different entries with unique ESTC numbers; other times the second or third title appears in the same entry in the Title field, or the Variant Title field, or the Notes field. (See ESTC Examples)
  • TEI markup evolves from P4 to P5 MARC Sample
  • MARC 21 Format for Bibliographic Data is hard to apply to (electronic records of) broadside ballads
    • The Format (FMT) field is Books (BK), i.e., the designation for printed, electronic, manuscript, and microform textual material that is monographic in nature.
    • MARC Standards follow International Standard Bibliographic Description (ISBD) principles that may go against the grain of other standard practices of cataloguing ballads. E.g., Long ballad titles should be separated into subfields in which all of the title data following the first mark of punctuation is rendered in a 245 subfield |b - "Remainder of the title" (See the image to the right; click to enlarge).
  • ICONCLASS hides behind its tree a myriad of subjective “leaves,” e.g. partial Iconclass Taxonomy
  • Meanwhile, advances in computerized image segmentation and recognition eliminate the necessity of metadata completely

This shiftiness, the apparent instability of these methods, is not the result of poor standards, but of the elusive nature of signification in general. (cf. Wilkins Taxonomy)

Protean Ephemera

Ballads change, evolve, even mutate over time, as does most ephemera.

  • Ballads divide into "Parts," but the lines of division are not consistent
    (See the Types of Parts)
  • Evolution of the ballad in black letter, white letter, and song books
    (See the Evolution of "Jockey and Jenny")
  • Tunes persist over time but their titles change
    (See the "Standard Tune Title" dropdown menu on the home page)
  • Woodcuts fade or break apart
    (See the multiple impressions of the lady-with-fan below)

EBBA 20217 EBBA 20159 EBBA 20663

Impressions from Pepys 1.32-33 (EBBA 20217), Pepys 1.332-333 (EBBA 20159), and Pepys 2.39 (EBBA 20663)

The Menelean2 EBBA Archivist

We have determined that we must keep wrestling with the Protean ballad to try and pin it down but that such “pinning” of standardization is a process which requires scholarly expertise.

One can one rule well one Greek archive kingdom, but even then its virtually impossible to pin everything down; standards must thus continually come to a scholarly or team “vote.” At the granular, tailor-made level, such Menelean decisions are very hard to export/import.

Talk: The Rootmass of the Woodblock: Towards a Rhizomatic Image Cataloguing System

The English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) has long been working to catalogue its many fascinating woodcut illustrations. Traditional cataloguing methods, though useful today and, indeed, necessary in traditional paper-based scholarship, are beginning to seem insufficient to the needs and capabilities of our web-based archive. This talk presents our ongoing development of more rhizomatic cataloguing standards (that is, multiple and root-based rather than hierarchical). It also discusses a project on which we are hoping to embark: developing visual-recognition software to digitally match images and parts of images which will be linked to rich, rhizomatic cataloguing data, giving end users an experience that is both rigorous in a scholarly sense and satisfying in a technological one.

This talk, with the slideshow available in PDF here, was also given as part of the Early Modern Center's Brownbag Series on November 4, 2011, by Associate Director Carl Stahmer and Project Manager Megan Palmer.


1 As of 2006, EBBA had yet to develop its robust image-matching technology which is now employed across the site. This talk therefore only applies to the hand-cataloged woodcut impressions in the Pepys Collection. See "Woodcut Search" for more on our Arch-V program.

2 In Greek mythology, Menelaus wrestled with Proteus and was able to momentarily pin him down to make him speak truth. Menelaus (Ancient Greek: Μενέλαος) was a legendary king of Mycenaean (pre-Dorian) Sparta, the husband of Helen, and a central figure in the Trojan War. He was the son of Atreus and Aerope, and brother of Agamemnon king of Mycenae and leader of the Greek army during the War. Prominent in both the Iliad and Odyssey, Menelaus was also popular in Greek vase painting and Greek tragedy; the latter more as a hero of the Trojan War than as a member of the doomed House of Atreus.