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A Sorry Sight

EBBA was conceived in 2003 out of sheer frustration. EBBA Director Patricia Fumerton had planned to launch new research and teaching on street literature, with a focus on broadside ballads, and found access blocked. Originals were highly guarded at libraries on either side of the pond; microfilm copies were difficult to locate and read; most printed editions were partial in offering only selections and, even then, provided only transcriptions with no duplication of the ballads’ original formatting and few illustrations; and the rare cases of facsimile editions presented the opposite problem—no easily readable transcriptions. Early English Books Online (EEBO) has to date failed to come to the rescue since many extant ballads have yet to be mounted in its database, nor can those that are online be easily searched by collection or finer cataloguing details that allow one to study ballads as a distinctive phenomenon. And in all available records to date—whether originals, printed selections, printed facsimiles, or digital reproductions—the accompanying ballad tunes are not sung. EBBA thus fills a real need. EBBA has made broadside ballads from many different holdings easily and fully accessible: gathered together on one site as ballad sheet facsimiles, facsimile transcriptions, text transcriptions, and recordings, and extensively catalogued. All ballads can be viewed via a basic search (using the magnifying glass at the top right of the window) and robust advanced search functions.

Under the direction of Patricia Fumerton, the EBBA team’s priority is to archive all of the surviving ballads published during the heyday of the black-letter ornamental broadside ballad of the 17th century—currently estimated to stand at some 11,000 extant works. But 1600 and 1700 are not magical cut-off dates for the EBBA project; rather they are permeable historical lines that we naturally and happily cross in tracing the rise and fall of English broadside ballads and their many transformations along the way.

To this end, in May 2003, EBBA set its sights first on digitizing the largest extant collection of English broadside ballads published in the 17th century: the five volumes of ballads collected by Samuel Pepys held at Magdalene College, Cambridge. With seed monies and then more substantial funding, the full archiving of the Pepys Collection of over 1,800 ballads was completed. Our next undertaking, with continued funding, was to archive the second largest collection of English 17th century black-letter ballads: the four volumes (in five books) of Roxburghe Ballads held at the British Library, London, some 1,500 broadside ballads. In 2010, EBBA began archiving the Euing collection of 408 black-letter ballads held at the University of Glasgow as well as the approximately 600 early broadside ballads at the Huntington Library in Pasadena (including the many broadside ballads collected in the 17th century by Narcissus Luttrell and later bound in what is known as the Bindley collection; the invaluable Britwell collection of some 90 loose black-letter ballads of the 16th century; and many other bound and loose sheets not in named collections). Between 2012 and 2014, we fully archived the broadside ballad collections from the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, including the important Crawford Collection. We are currently archiving the more than 1,150 broadside ballads in the collections of Harvard University's Houghton Library.