This is the final post in a short series about a workshop in Oxford organised by Siv Gøril Brandtzæg to discuss the European news ballad. I was lucky enough to be invited along on a glorious day at the beginning of April for some fascinating insights into people’s work on ballads in various European cultures.

The formal proceedings of the day came to an end with a short presentation from Giles Bergil on digitisation and a roundtable on databases. Giles pointed out that one advantage of the internet is that it is very good at linking things. Furthermore, one unique feature of digital resources is that they can provide points of comparison and an overview of the collection. It means that you can use algorithms to track the development of aspects of the collection, for example.

Jeroen Salman commented that it would be nice to have one portal with access to different sources from different countries and open them up for a notation.  It would create starting point for comparative scholarship on ballads and other sources.  Astrid Nora Ressem reiterated a point that Giles had made: that mainstream library catalogues can’t keep everything in order, and that ballads are particularly hard to catalogue in mainstream ways because they don’t fit the standard patterns of metadata. Nevertheless, there are also problems using a specialist catalogue because it might not be future-proof and might not be updateable in 10 or 20 years.

Angela’s point was that digital re-mediation has an impact, and that editorial decisions need to be made very clear.  We should also ask ourselves what can the digital do that other methods can’t? Her answer was that it can stop us reinventing the wheel: with better links to existing multidisciplinary scholarship, people can see what work has already been done on things.

The debate was then opened to the floor. David Atkinson pointed out that there are many ballads that aren’t digitised nor will be in our lifetimes, which led Angela to comment that many scholars think that the digital is everything that there is.  Databases are not open about what’s missing.  Astrid reminded us that you have to decide what to put in and what to leave out by creating definitions, and that it can be hard to define what is or isn’t a skilling print. Giles argued, however, that index cards created more strictures. Once something is available digitally you can call it as many things as you want so removes the problem of definition. Nevertheless, people still find it moving to see the real thing. Oskar Cox Jensen suggested that big data should come with a warning: there are huge problems over how complete the databases could ever be given the way that things do or don’t survive.

Mark Philp pointed out that institutions don’t think in terms of the long-term investments, and you can’t get money to keep things alive online once the initial set up is completed.  You need money to keep up with the platforms as they modernise.  On the other hand, as Giles reminded us, special collections also require ongoing financial input so this should be possible.

After the discussion, Alexandra Franklin invited us across the road to the print shop in the Bodleian Library. It was fascinating, as it’s not something I’ve ever seen up close before

Oxford, it has to be said, was looking glorious in the spring sunshine:

Siv kindly invited us for a drink at her home before dinner. At Siv’s invitation, Anne Sigrid Refsum sang a couple of verses from one of her songs about Ole Høiland, and I sang two from A joyful new Ballad, declaring the happiy obtaining of the great Galleazzo, a ballad from the period of the Spanish Armada. Then we walked round to the Old Bookbinders, where we had a lovely meal.

The following morning dawned drizzly, but not to worry – there was plenty of food for thought after a very interesting day.