New technology reveals origins of images in printed ballads

December 19, 2012
New technology reveals origins of images in printed ballads
Image from a ballad (right) and the original woodblock from which it was taken (left). Credit: British Museum

(—An Oxford University team has developed a software tool which can identify the origin of illustrations on 17th and 18th-century printed 'broadside ballads'.

The researchers say that being able to match printed images made from the same wooden blocks, or their copies, will provide insights into the history of printing in England between 1600 and 1800.

It will also allow researchers to trace the circulation of copies of popular images alongside the traditional song-texts that they accompanied. 

Under a John Fell Foundation Research Grant in 2011, high-quality scans of 17th-century illustrated ballads from Bodleian Library collections were visually indexed using image- developed by Relja Arandjelovic and Professor Andrew Zisserman of the Department of Engineering Science at Oxford University.

Now a new project, funded by JISC, will incorporate the image matching into the Bodleian Libraries' presentation of broadside ballad collections online. The project is led by Dr Giles Bergel of the Faculty of English Language and Literature at Oxford University and Dr Alexandra Franklin of the Bodleian Library.

Broadside ballads were popular illustrated song-sheets, sold for a penny or half-penny by wandering ballad-singers in the streets of Britain between the sixteenth and early twentieth centuries. The songs were performed at home, in taverns and at fairs.

The printed sheets were pinned on the walls of inns and cottages: once-popular, they have survived only by chance or by the efforts of lone collectors. Many are undated.

Dr Bergel of the Faculty of English Language and Literature said: 'As well as allowing researchers, cataloguers and users to explore the rich visual traditions of popular printed ballads, this technology has other applications.

'In future, it may allow researchers to identify and date anonymous printings, or find the subtle differences between copies of printed images and texts of all kinds that occurred when printing was a handicraft.'

A demonstration of the search programme, taken from the Bodleian Library's holdings of broadside ballads, is available here. Instructions for use, and more background on the project is here.

As one of the cheapest forms of printed material available, broadside ballads are an important source material for traditional musicians and historians of printing, literacy and popular culture. Tens of thousands of broadside ballads are held in libraries in Great Britain.

The Bodleian Library holds over 30,000 ballads, contained in several historic collections acquired between the 17th and 20th centuries. A database and images of the printed ballads are freely available online.

A demonstration of the image matching software is also running in the Bodleian Library, accompanying a small exhibition that runs until December 23.

Explore further: Archive of irreverent miscellanies put online

Related Stories

Archive of irreverent miscellanies put online

September 23, 2010

The world's largest collection of miscellanies is being collected and put online by researchers from the Faculty of English Language and Literature with the support of the Bodleian Libraries curators.

Bodleian uses crowd-sourcing to catalogue music collection

May 4, 2012

The Bodleian Library is asking the public for help in cataloguing one of its collections. As part of a new project, members of the public are being asked to help describe 4,000 music pieces from the Bodleian Libraries' collections.

New Shakespeare Archive launched

November 17, 2009

( -- The Shakespeare Quartos Archive has been officially launched today with a complete digital collection of rare early editions of Hamlet.

Romantic lessons from the Middle Ages

February 14, 2012

Love is in the air at the Bodleian Library this Valentine's Day, as the stories of epic medieval romances from King Arthur and Guinevere to Tristan and Isolde are on display.

Recommended for you

Predicting the future with the wisdom of crowds

June 23, 2017

Forecasters often overestimate how good they are at predicting geopolitical events—everything from who will become the next pope to who will win the next national election in Taiwan.

UN says world population will reach 9.8 billion in 2050

June 22, 2017

India's population is expected to surpass China's in about seven years and Nigeria is projected to overtake the United States and become the third most populous country in the world shortly before 2050, a U.N. report said ...

Authenticity key to landing a new job

June 22, 2017

At job interviews, relax and be yourself - if you're good, being yourself may be the best way to secure a job offer, according to a new study involving UCL researchers.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.