When news was sung or stuck to a wall

As you read these words, you're making use of one of the most modern media capable of communicating news and current events - and chances are that you also gather information on a daily basis from various combinations of other methods such as print (magazines, newspapers and tabloids), radio, and television. But such a wealth of options is a very recent phenomenon, and for some three hundred years in Scotland, the primary source of public information was the broadside - a single sheet of paper, printed on one side, telling one story, and frequently posted in high-traffic locations for the edification and entertainment of the masses. The broadside may have vanished from our daily news gathering routine, but examples from its heyday still reveal interesting parallels to today's media (and its audience). The Word On the Street presents all the news that's fit to ... stick on a wall.

After the technological complexities of last week's Virtual Vaudeville, Word On the Street takes Web design to the other extreme with a site that couldn't be more basic (which will no doubt come as a relief to those with slower connections). A virtual exhibition of the National Library of Scotland, Word may be a basic production, but it's one with impressive depth as it boasts an online collection of almost 1,800 broadsides, printed between 1650 and 1910. While the broadside is hardly a phenomenon unique to Scotland - or even Europe - the National Library has more than a quarter million of the news sheets in their possession - a good-sized pool from which to build an exhibition.

Appropriately mirroring the featured content, Word On the Street is presented through plain black text on white backgrounds with only a sprinkling of images - and with the only hint of color appearing in navigational links. (These links include selected broadside samples that appear down the left side of the screen, to tempt visitors as they explore the site.) The exhibition proper begins with brief notes on the historical Background of the papers - from their start as a vehicle for Royal Proclamations to their latter status as a sort of early 'tabloid' journalism - and then moves on to their use of Illustrations, and methods of Distribution. Having established the provenance of the artifacts, Word then introduces the online audience to a collection of specially chosen specimens in its Highlights exhibit.

Following the journalistic maxim that 'if it bleeds, it leads,' the Highlights section opens with a collection of Crime stories. Popular in their time for their sensationalistic impact (some things never change), the Crime stories include such familiar offenses as assault and murder, but begins with the less typical story of 25-year-old James MacPherson. Described as a Scottish 'Robin Hood,' MacPherson was eventually captured and sentenced to death, and was reputed to have read a poem and played a fiddle tune (both of his own composing) on the scaffold. He then offered his instrument to the crowd, and when no one came forward to claim it, the young Scot blazed the trail for hundreds of unborn rock stars and wannabees as he smashed the fiddle 'onstage' before being hanged.

The featured account of MacPherson's execution was published as a <i>Ballad</i> - a form which allowed broadside sellers to sing the news to a largely illiterate population - and two more examples of this early blending of news and entertainment follow in the next section. Frequently using established folk songs for the melodies, and frequently entering the popular repertiore themselves, one of these musical broadsides has recently been discovered as the ancestor of a 1960s folk hit, and history's first-ever football (soccer) song.

Sport is another featured category of the highlighted exhibits, as is Emigration. Tragedy and Disaster includes the collapse of the bridge over the Firth of Tay (made famous by the infamous poet, William McGonnagle), while Marvels tells of such curiosities as a seafarer's encounter with a mermaid, and a human interest piece about a woman who took on a male identity to earn a living. (Discovered at her wedding to another woman, at "a great disappointment to the newly made wife," the subject of the story then abandons cross-dressing and announces her availability for marriage to a suitable young man. "One about to go to Australia would be preferred.")

The last highlighted collection embraces Humour - with a satirical collection of new laws about to be passed by Parliament, a parody of the always popular 'Scaffold speeches' of condemned criminals, and a ballad about women's fashions. After touring the Highlights, surfers can Search and Browse the rest of the collection by category (Apparitions, Pirates, Trials, etc.), Title, Date, or Keyword. A Resources page includes links to other online anthologies.

For each broadside, the exhibition provides some background commentary along with a screen-height image of the work in question. Links provide access to a larger JPEG, a downloadable PDF facsimile (in case you'd like to print out your own copy), and a text transcript (if you find the old sheets difficult to decipher, or simply want to copy and paste into another document). Content is king at Word On the Street, and the National Library strives to make that content as accessible as possible.

Of course, you may be wondering just how much of that content can be taken as historical fact - after all, mermaids generally prefer to avoid press coverage. As with today's various levels of journalism, there is truth, fiction, and mixtures of both here, and you can often tell as much about a culture by the lies it embraces as by the facts it records. And for the majority of us visiting the site without any scholarly purpose, Word On the Street exists primarily as a collection of curiosity and entertainment - from the "Courage and Intrepidity of John McGregor against a shark who had killed his friend," to the ballad of "The Russians Are Coming!" to a timeless warning "To the Prospective Electors of Roxburghshire" that a politician is not what he claims to be. The site fills - admirably - its role as a source for curiosity and entertainment.

The Word On The Street can be found at http://www.nls.uk/broadsides/index.html.

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