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The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress
presents the Benjamin Botkin Folklife Lecture Series

April 14, 2011 Event Flyer

Chorus and Verse:
The Challenges of Designing the Roud Folk Song Index

Presented by Steve Roud

2011 Botkin Lecture Flyer for Steve Roud

The Folk Song Index is a freely available online database, which lists English-language traditional songs collected in Britain, North America, and Australia, whether found in books, sound recordings, or unpublished collections. Entries include details of song title and first line, name of singer, place and date of collection, and so on, and as each element is fully searchable singly or in combination, the Index constitutes a major finding-aid for both enthusiasts and serious researchers. A sister database, the Broadside Index, lists songs that appeared on broadsides, songsters and other street literature before 1900, and is designed to assist those who are interested in the history of popular and traditional songs.

The Folk Song Index and Broadside Index were started about forty years ago as a relatively small-scale amateur project to provide a finding-list for folksongs in published sources, but they have grown tremendously in terms of size, complexity and professionalism, and have now become a major resource for song researchers across the globe. The indexes now stand at over 175,000 and 145,000 entries respectively, and are still growing. But size and complexity bring their own problems, and one of the major challenges in recent years has been to satisfy the different information needs of an ever-widening user-base. It seems at times that to introduce changes that are designed to help one group nearly always disenfranchises another.

Advances in technology have obviously helped significantly in getting the indexes known and used, and there are exciting developments still to come. In Britain and America, projects designed to make available digitized copies of folk materials, whether held in manuscript, printed, or audio formats, are growing apace, and are making more and more raw material readily available to researchers at all levels. But the sheer quantity of material, allied to particular built-in problems of the genre (such as variant song-titles), cry out for organization, and make a unified access-point ever more desirable, or even essential.

Variant song-titles and unstable texts are just two of the problems encountered by both the indexer and the end-user in folk song research, and strategies to compensate in the past have been of only limited applicability, or are too complex for all but the most expert user. The Folk Song Index therefore incorporates a newly devised numbering system which seeks to compensate for these problems and to offer a way of bringing together different versions of "the same" song. These numbers are increasingly being quoted outside the framework of the Index as useful identifiers within the discipline, but while this is immensely gratifying, it brings in problems of definition and the level of specificity required. Again, different users require different things.

The talk will describe the development of the project and identify some of the problems brought about by growth and the increased demands of a widening userbase. It will then describe and discuss the various digitization projects and explore how my indexes can be made to work more closely with the databases of images and sound-files thus created, in order to offer to interested parties a level of access and support undreamt-of even a few years ago.

Steve Roud

Steve Roud is a retired local studies librarian who is now a freelance writer and researcher specializing in folklore and folksong projects in Britain. He has published important works on children’s folklore, superstitions, calendar customs, and London lore. He is also widely known as the compiler of the online Folk Song Index and Broadside Index, which constitute a major contribution to international folksong scholarship.

AFC logo The American Folklife Center was created by Congress in 1976 and placed at the Library of Congress to "preserve and present American Folklife" through programs of research, documentation, archival preservation, reference service, live performance, exhibition, public programs, and training. The Center includes the American Folklife Center Archive of folk culture, which was established in 1928 and is now one of the largest collections of ethnographic material from the United States and around the world. Please visit our web site.


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