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The Ballads Project

The Bodleian Library has unparalleled holdings of over 30,000 ballads in several major collections. Broadside ballads are important source material for:

  • popular literary history
  • music history
  • social history
  • art history
  • printing history

The Broadside Ballads project, undertaken with funding from the NFF Specialised Research Collections initiative, aims to make the ballads and ballad sheets available to the research community.


Broadside ballads were popular songs, sold for a penny or half-penny in the streets of towns and villages around Britain between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries. These songs were performed in taverns, homes, or fairs -- wherever a group of people gathered to discuss the day's events or to tell tales of heroes and villains. As one of the cheapest forms of print available, the broadside ballads are also an important source material for the history of printing and literacy. Lavishly illustrated with woodcuts, they provide a visual treat for the reader and offer a source for the study of popular art in Britain.

Tens of thousands of ballad broadsides are held in libraries in Great Britain, but the variety and quantity of these single-sheet songs has often posed problems for researchers. Many of their distinctive features, such as varying titles applied to the same text, make them difficult to find in normal library catalogues. Very few are signed by an author. Most lack even a year of publication. The Broadside Ballads Project seeks to facilitate access to the ballads held in collections at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.


The Bodleian Library holds over 30,000 ballads, contained in several collections. These have been gathered into a single catalogue which is now presented, along with a scanned image of each ballad sheet, in the Broadside Ballads Project.

The integrated catalogue is now online, and the Web interface allows searches for, inter alia, song sheets, ballads or illustrations. Comparisons can now be made of multiple copies of the same ballad. In addition, a few of the ballads have scores; for these sound files are provided.

Each ballad in the collections is indexed by title, first line, and subject. An index of names holds entries for all authors and performers named on the ballad broadsides. The catalogue records describe each ballad broadside, noting whether it is illustrated, showing the full imprint statement (where given) and listing each separate ballad on the sheet. The names of authors, performers and publishers are also indexed, and there is an index of ballad subjects rangimg from the general ('Wedding'), through political topics of the day ('Jacobite Rebellion, 1715') to named persons ('Calvin, John'). Further information on how to find particular ballads and broadside sheets is given in the Help section.

The woodcut illustrations are indexed by subject, using the image classification system ICONCLASS. The section on Iconography explains how woodcuts can be searched using the ICONCLASS system


The cataloguing of the Bodleian Library's ballad collections was undertaken over a long period. The first catalogue was made on handwritten slips; the work of Stanley Gillam and several volunteers during the 1980s made this a comprehensive list of the Library's broadside ballads. During the 1970s, over 10,000 records of ballads were first computerised in a project overseen by John Jolliffe and Geoff Neate. A print-out from this project formed the only publicly available catalogue of the ballads.

The Broadside Ballads Project was begun in 1995 with funding from the NFF Specialised Research Collections Initiative. Under the direction of Mike Heaney, this project has computerised the whole of the ballads catalogue, enhanced it with an index of the woodcut illustrations of the ballads, and provided scanned images of all the broadside ballads in the Bodleian Library.

The work of computerising the remaining catalogue entries and indexing the woodcut illustrations was done by Alexandra Franklin. With the help of David Helliwell, the catalogue was entered in the allegro database program, enabling indexing of the contents. Josie Lister led a team of photographers who microfilmed the Bodleian's collections of ballads; these were then digitally scanned to provide images for the website. Graham Wilkins and Jason Elliot-Smith undertook quality control of the scanned images. Mike Heaney made the sound files attached to each record of a broadside which contains a musical score. Thaddeus Lipinski designed the website and brought the allegro catalogue, the processed images, the music files, and ICONCLASS together to form the entire package.

The Java implementation of ICONCLASS is by courtesy of the ICONCLASS Research and Development Group, University of Utrecht, under the direction of Jorgen van den Berg.


Bodleian Library 1999