THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

20 posts categorized "Modern history"

13 August 2018

The Parts of a Playbill

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Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott is a PhD researcher at the University of Portsmouth studying the presentation of nineteenth-century magicians in biographies, literature, and the popular press. She is currently a research placement student on the British Library’s In the Spotlight project, cleaning and contextualising the crowdsourced playbills data. She can be found on Twitter at @beeashlell and you can help out with In the Spotlight at playbills.libcrowds.com.

In the Spotlight is a brilliant tool for spotting variations between playbills across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The site provides participants with access to thousands of digitised playbills, and the sheets of the playbills in the site’s collections often have lists of the cast, scenes, and any innovative ‘machinery’ involved in the production. Whilst the most famous actors obviously needed to be emphasised and drew more crowds (e.g., any playbills featuring Mr Kean tend to have his name in huge letters), from the playbills in In the Spotlight’s volumes that doesn’t always seem to be the case with playwrights. Sometimes they’re mentioned by name, but in many cases famous playwrights aren't named on the playbill. I’ve speculated previously that this is because these playwrights were so famous that perhaps audiences would hear by word of mouth or press that a new play was out by them, so it was assumed that there was no point in adding the name as audiences would already know?

What can you expect to see on a playbill?

The basics of a playbill are: the main title of the performance, a subtitle, often the current date, future or past dates of performances, the cast and characters, scenery, short or long summaries of the scenes to be acted, whether the performance is to benefit anyone, and where tickets can be bought from. There are definitely surprises though: the In the Spotlight team have also come across apologies from theatre managers for actors who were scheduled to perform not turning up, or performing drunk! The project forum has a thread for interesting things 'spotted on In the Spotlight', and we always welcome posts from others.

Crowds would often react negatively if the scheduled performers weren’t on stage. Gilli Bush-Bailey also notes in The Performing Century (2007) that crowds would be used to seeing the same minor actors reappear across several parts of the performance and playbills, stating that ‘playbills show that only the lesser actors and actresses in the company appear in both the main piece and the following farce or afterpiece’ (p. 185), with bigger names at theatres royal committing only to either a tragic or comic performance.

From our late 18th century playbills on the site, users can see quite a standard format in structure and font.

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In this 1797 playbill from the Margate volume, the font is uniform, with variations in size to emphasise names and performance titles.

How did playbills change over time?

In the 19th century, all kinds of new and exciting fonts are introduced, as well as more experimentation in the structuring of playbills. The type of performance also influences the layout of the playbill, for instance, a circus playbill be often be divided into a grid-like structure to describe each act and feature illustrations, and early magician playbills often change orientation half-way down the playbill to give more space to describe their tricks and stage.

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1834 Birmingham playbill

This 1834 Birmingham playbill is much lengthier than the previous example, showing a variety of fonts and featuring more densely packed text. Although this may look more like an information overload, the mix of fonts and variations in size still make the main points of the playbill eye-catching to passersby. 

James Gregory’s ‘Parody Playbills’ article, stimulated by the In the Spotlight project, contains a lot of great examples and further insights into the deeper meaning of playbills and their structure.

Works Cited

Davies, T. C. and P. Holland. (2007). The Performing Century: Nineteenth-Century Theatre History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gregory, J. (2018) ‘Parody Playbills: The Politics of the Playbill in Britain in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’ in eBLJ.

16 July 2018

Crowdsourcing comedy: date and genre results from In the Spotlight

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Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott is a PhD researcher at the University of Portsmouth studying the presentation of nineteenth-century magicians in biographies, literature, and the popular press. She is currently a research placement student on the British Library’s In the Spotlight project, cleaning and contextualising the crowdsourced playbills data. She can be found on Twitter at @beeashlell and you can join the In the Spotlight project at playbills.libcrowds.com.

In this blog post I discuss the data created so far by In the Spotlight volunteers via crowdsourcing – which has already thrown out quite a few surprises along the way! All of the data which I discuss was cleaned using Open Refine, with some manual intervention by me to group categories such as genre. My first post below highlights the most notable results to come out of the date and genre tasks so far, and a second post will present similar findings for play titles and playwrights.

Dates

I started off by analysing the dates generated by the projects as, to be honest, it seemed easiest! One of the problems we’ve encountered with the date tasks, however, is that a number of the playbills do not show a full date.  This is notable in itself but unsurprising – why would a playbill in the eighteenth or nineteenth century need a full date when they weren’t expected to last two hundred years into the future? With that in mind, this is by no means an exhaustive data set.

After creating a simple graph of the most popular dates, it became clear that we had a huge spike in the number of performances in 1825. Was something relevant to theatre history happening during this year, or were the sources of the playbill collections just unusually pro-active in 1825 after taking some time off? Was the paper stock quality better, so more playbills have lasted? The outside influence of the original collector or owner of these playbills is also something to consider, for instance, maybe he was more interested in one type of performance than others, had more time to collect playbills in certain years or in certain places, and so on. A final potential factor is that this data also only comes from the volumes added to the site projects so far, and so isn’t indicative of the Library’s playbills as a whole.

Aside from source or collector influence, some other possible explanations do present themselves. Britain in general was growing exponentially, with London in particular becoming one of the biggest cities in the world, and this era also saw the birth of railways and the extravagant influence of figures such as George IV. As this is coming off the back of what seems to be a very slow year in 1824, however, perhaps it is best just to chalk this up to the activity of the collectors. We also have another noticeable spike in 1829, but by no means as dramatic as that of 1825. I’ve spent a bit of time comparing the number of performances seen in the volumes with other online performance date tools, such as UMass's Adelphi calendar and Godwin’s Diary to compare numbers, but would love to hear any further insights into this!

alt="Graph of most popular dates"
A graph showing the most popular performance dates

Genre

The main issue I faced in working with the genre data was the wide variety of descriptors used on the playbills themselves. For instance, I encountered burlesque, burletta and burlesque burletta – which of the first two categories would the last one go under? When I went back to the playbills themselves, it was also clear that many of the ‘genres’ generated were more like comments from theatre managers or just descriptions e.g. ‘an amusing sketch’. With this in mind, genre was the dataset which I ‘interfered’ with the most from a cleaning point of view.

Some of the calls I made were to group anything cited as ‘dramatic ___’ with drama more widely, unless it had a notable second qualifier, such as pantomime, Romance or sketch. I also grouped anything mentioning ‘historical’ together, as from a research point of view this is probably the most prominent aspect, grouped harlequinades with pantomimes (although I know this might be controversial!) and grouped anything which involved a large organisation, such as military, Masonic or national performances, under ‘organisational’. Some were difficult to separate – I did wonder about grouping variety and vaudeville together, but as there were so few of each it seemed better to leave them be.

With these qualifications in mind, by far the most popular genre in the collections was farce, which I kept distinct from comedy, clocking up 537 performances from the projects. This was closely followed by comedy more generally with 527 performances, with the drama (197), melodrama (150) and tragedy (135) trailing afterwards. Once again, it could purely be that the original collectors of these volumes had more of a taste for comedy than drama, but there is such a wide gap in popularity from the volumes so far that it seems fair to conclude that the regional theatre-going public of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries preferred to be cheered rather than saddened by their entertainment.

alt="Graph of the most popular genres"
A graph showing the most popular genres in records transcribed to date

You can contribute to this research

The more contributions we receive, the more accurate the titles, genre and dates results will be, so whether you’re looking out for your local theatre or interested in the more unusual performances which crop up, get involved with the project today at playbills.libcrowds.com. In the Spotlight is well on the way to hitting 100,000 contributions – make sure that you’re one of them!

23 March 2018

Shine a light on past entertainments with In the Spotlight

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In this post, Dr Mia Ridge and Alex Mendes provide an update on the Library's latest crowdsourcing project...

People who've explored In the Spotlight, our project helping make historic playbills more findable, might have noticed a line of text just above the 'Save and Continue' button: 'Seen something interesting? Add a note'.

Insights from your comments

Since the project began, we've received almost 700 comments [update - it's actually over 1900, across all projects]. Some of them simply tell us that an image is blank or upside-down, but many others share interesting findings. We love hearing from you, and we've been highlighting individual comments on Twitter (@LibCrowds) and on our forum.

Comments have pointed out spectacles including 'a Terrific Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, accompanied by TORRENTS OF BURNING LAVA' and a 'Serpent vomiting Fire'. New amenities mentioned include lighting ('600 wax lights and a new set of gold chandeliers' or new gas lighting) and the addition of backs to seats. Famous actors spotted include Sarah Siddons, Jenny Lind and Ira Aldridge, while Mr Kean has caused all kinds of trouble.

Lots of comments are about performances that aren't plays, from hornpipes to tableaux to ballets, songs, speeches, fireworks, scientific demonstrations, performing animals, panoramas, conjuring and juggling tricks, lists of scenery, gun tricks, pantomimes, acrobatics, excerpts from plays, and even the 'reenactment of the Coronation'! We're thinking hard about the best way to deal with them (and with playbills that don't include a year), and will post to the forum and twitter to ask for your ideas soon.

General updates

Since we first shared the link, there have been over 4,700 visitors from 91 countries. About 80% are primarily English-speakers, with Russian, German and French the next most popular languages.

We've had over 42,000 contributions from over 630 participants (with 1499 participants registered on the platform overall). Together, they've helped complete 34 projects by undertaking countless marking and transcription tasks to make genres, dates and play titles searchable.

Each project is based on a specific volume of playbills from a regional theatre or theatres. The fastest projects were 'Theatre Royal, Bristol 1819-1823 (Vol. 2)', completed in 8 days, 31 minutes, with 'Miscellaneous Plymouth theatres 1796-1882 (Vol. 1)' a close second at 8 days, 5 hours, 30 mins. We currently have playbills from theatres in Dublin, Hull, Nottingham - Oswestry or Plymouth - which will be completed first?

Recent blog posts include a wonderful story from PhD student and In the Spotlight participant Edward Mills tracing an ancient custom through the Library's digitised collections in The Flitch of Bacon: An Unexpected Journey Through the Collections of the British Library, and Christian Algar on the 'rich pageant' of historical playbills.

You might have noticed some small changes to the navigation and data pages as we updated the software this week. Most of the changes were behind the scenes, providing additional admin and analysis functions to ensure that data sent off to the catalogue is as accurate as possible.

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Visitors have come from all over the world, but we'd love to reach more

 

Thank you!

We're grateful to everyone who's made a large or small contribution, but particular thanks to Barbara G, David Y, Dina S, Ervins S, Jo B, John L, Katharine S, Kathryn P-S, Lisa G, Maria Antonia V-S, Martin B, mistrec, Olga K, Raphael H, Rosie C, Sharon E, sylvmorris1, Tabitha M, thtrisdead, Tif D, Vijay V and various anonymous posters for your comments. Your comments are also helping us work out how to tweak some of the interfaces so people can let us know about a problem with a task by clicking a button, so expect more improvements in the future!

Step into the Spotlight

It's easy to try out In the Spotlight - you don't need to register, so you can start marking out the titles of plays or transcribing the titles, dates or genres of plays straight away. Give it a go and let us know what you find!

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There are wonders galore waiting for the spotlight

14 March 2018

Working with BL Labs in search of Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose

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The 19th Century British Library Newspapers Database offers a rich mine of material to be sourced for a comprehensive view of British life in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. The online archive comprises 101 full-text titles of local, regional, and national newspapers across the UK and Ireland, and thanks to optical character recognition, they are all fully searchable. This allows for extensive data mining across several millions worth of newspaper pages. It’s like going through the proverbial haystack looking for the equally proverbial needle, but with a magnet in hand.

For my current research project on the role of the radio during the British Raj, I wanted to find out more about Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose (1858–1937), whose contributions to the invention of wireless telegraphy were hardly acknowledged during his lifetime and all but forgotten during the twentieth century.

J.C.Bose
Jagadish Chandra Bose in Royal Institution, London
(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

The person who is generally credited with having invented the radio is Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937). In 1909, he and Karl Ferdinand Braun (1850–1918) were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics “in recognition of their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy”. What is generally not known is that almost ten years before that, Bose invented a coherer that would prove to be crucial for Marconi’s successful attempt at wireless telegraphy across the Atlantic in 1901. Bose never patented his invention, and Marconi reaped all the glory.

In his book Jagadis Chandra Bose and the Indian Response to Western Science, Subrata Dasgupta gives us four reasons as to why Bose’s contributions to radiotelegraphy have been largely forgotten in the West throughout the twentieth century. The first reason, according to Dasgupta, is that Bose changed research interest around 1900. Instead of continuing and focusing his work on wireless telegraphy, Bose became interested in the physiology of plants and the similarities between inorganic and living matter in their responses to external stimuli. Bose’s name thus lost currency in his former field of study.

A second reason that contributed to the erasure of Bose’s name is that he did not leave a legacy in the form of students. He did not, as Dasgupta puts it, “found a school of radio research” that could promote his name despite his personal absence from the field. Also, and thirdly, Bose sought no monetary gain from his inventions and only patented one of his several inventions. Had he done so, chances are that his name would have echoed loudly through the century, just as Marconi’s has done.

“Finally”, Dasgupta writes, “one cannot ignore the ‘Indian factor’”. Dasgupta wonders how seriously the scientific western elite really took Bose, who was the “outsider”, the “marginal man”, the “lone Indian in the hurly-burly of western scientific technology”. And he wonders how this affected “the seriousness with which others who came later would judge his significance in the annals of wireless telegraphy”.

And this is where the BL’s online archive of nineteenth-century newspapers comes in. Looking at newspaper coverage about Bose in the British press at the time suggests that Bose’s contributions to wireless telegraphy were soon to be all but forgotten during his lifetime. When Bose died in 1937, Reuters Calcutta put out a press release that was reprinted in several British newspapers. As an example, the following notice was published in the Derby Evening Telegraph of November 23rd, 1937, on Bose’s death:

Newspaper clipping announcing death of JC Bose
Notice in the Derby Evening Telegraph of November 23rd, 1937

This notice is as short as it is telling in what it says and does not say about Bose and his achievements: he is remembered as the man “who discovered a heart beat in trees”. He is not remembered as the man who almost invented the radio. He is remembered for the Western honours that are bestowed upon him (the Knighthood and his Fellowship of the Royal Society), and he is remembered as the founder of the Bose Research Institute. He is not remembered for his career as a researcher and inventor; a career that span five decades and saw him travel extensively in India, Europe and the United States.

The Derby Evening Telegraph is not alone in this act of partial remembrance. Similar articles appeared in Dundee’s Evening Telegraph and Post and The Gloucestershire Echo on the same day. The Aberdeen Press and Journal published a slightly extended version of the Reuters press release on November 24th that includes a brief account of a lecture by Bose in Whitehall in 1929, during which Bose demonstrated “that plants shudder when struck, writhe in the agonies of death, get drunk, and are revived by medicine”. However, there is again no mention of Bose’s work as a physicist or of his contributions to wireless telegraphy. The same is true for obituaries published in The Nottingham Evening Post on November 23rd, The Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror on November 24th, another article published in the Aberdeen Press and Journal on November 26th, and two articles published in The Manchester Guardian on November 24th.

The exception to the rule is the obituary published in The Times on November 24th. Granted, with a total of 1116 words it is significantly longer than the Reuters press release, but this is also partly the point, as it allows for a much more comprehensive account of Bose’s life and achievements. But even if we only take the first two sentences of The Times obituary, which roughly add up to the word count of the Reuters press release, we are already presented with a different account altogether:

“Our Calcutta Correspondent telegraphs that Sir Jagadis Chandra Bose, F.R.S., died at Giridih, Bengal, yesterday, having nearly reached the age of 79. The reputation he won by persistent investigation and experiment as a physicist was extended to the general public in the Western world, which he frequently visited, by his remarkable gifts as a lecturer, and by the popular appeal of many of his demonstrations.”

We know that he was a physicist; the focus is on his skills as a researcher and on his talents as a lecturer rather than on his Western titles and honours, which are mentioned in passing as titles to his name; and we immediately get a sense of the significance of his work within the scientific community and for the general public. And later on in the article, it is finally acknowledged that Bose “designed an instrument identical in principle with the 'coherer' subsequently used in all systems of wireless communication. Another early invention was an instrument for verifying the laws of refraction, reflection, and polarization of electric waves. These instruments were demonstrated on the occasion of his first appearance before the British Association at the 1896 meeting at Liverpool”.

Posted by BL Labs on behalf of Dr Christin Hoene, a BL Labs Researcher in Residence at the British Library. Dr Hoene is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in English Literature at the University of Kent. 

If you are interested in working with the British Library's digital collections, why not come along to one of our events that we are holding at universities around the UK this year? We will be holding a roadshow at the University of Kent on 25 April 2018. You can see a programme for the day and book your place through this Eventbrite page. 

22 February 2018

BL Labs 2017 Symposium: Picturing Canada and Interactive Map (Staff Award Runner Up)

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Putting collection metadata on the map: Picturing Canada

The Picturing Canada project began in 2012 as a British Library, Eccles Centre and Wikimedia UK collaboration to digitise a collection and experiment with releasing high quality reproductions of collection items into the public domain. At its heart the project sought to open up an under-used collection of photographs, connecting them with new audiences and uses outside of the walls of the British Library. It also provided a template for the Library’s subsequent public domain releases and has been provided many around with an insight into the depth of the Library’s Canadian collections.

Before the collection could be released it needed to be digitised and robust metadata created. Fortunately the Library had a good working batch of metadata created off the back of work done by researchers from Dalhousie University in the 1980s. The initial use of this to the project was clear but in digitising the images and putting them and the metadata online something became apparent; most images had some sort of information (be it a title or a photographer’s studio address) that could be used to determine a geographical location for the images.

At the time, this realisation was parked for future investigation but the 2015 exhibition, ‘Canada Through the Lens’, drawing off the same digitised collection, opened up an opportunity to try and use this information to map the collection and generate new insights into its contents. Much of the coordinate determination and mapping was done by Joan Francis, co-awardee of the BL Labs runner-up prize, who worked to find and add coordinates for the photographs. This was a relatively simple but time-consuming process involving finding locations in the metadata image title or, in the case of a photographer’s studio address, on the photograph itself. These text-based locations were then converted into co-ordinates compatible with Google Fusion Tables (there’s an excellent tutorial here) and added to records for each image.

 

The result of this is the map that you see above, a series of points which can be clicked on to see a partial metadata record for the item as well as a link to the photograph itself on Wikipedia Commons. As the work is time-consuming and fraught with potential error we have still only worked to a robust mapping of about four fifths of the collection and this is the work you see here. Interestingly, map is not just a useful finding aid – although it performs this function very well.

Mapping the collection also provides insight into the geography of photographic production in Canada during the period this collection was created (1895 – 1923). It is clear, for instance, how significant the eastern metropolitan areas of Toronto, Montreal and Quebec are to Canada’s photographic production in this period. Similarly, the corridors of production seen running close to the Canada-US border and occasionally spurring north also suggest the significance of the railroad to Canada’s photographic economy. So the map helps users to find images but also offers more questions; an exciting prospect for continued work.

Posted by BL Labs on behalf of Philip Hatfield and Joan Francis

Submit a project for one of the BL Labs 2018 Awards! Join us on 12 November 2018 for the BL Labs annual Symposium at the British Library.

29 November 2017

Crowdsourcing using IIIF and Web Annotations

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Alex Mendes from the Digital Scholarship team explains how the LibCrowds platform uses emerging standards for digitised images and annotations.

Our new crowdsourcing project, In the Spotlight, was officially launched at the start of November 2017. The project asks volunteers to identify and transcribe key data held in digitised playbills. Here we explore two of the key technologies we adopted to enable this: IIIF and Web Annotations.

Task-configuration
Configuring a selection task using JSON

Commonly, when an institution began digitising a new type of content, or a particular project realised that the current infrastructure didn’t fit their needs, they may have built or commissioned a new image viewer, one that would probably be tightly coupled with their custom metadata structures. This leads to an ever-growing collection of isolated data silos that, among other issues, do not allow the information they contain to be easily reused.

The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) is a set of APIs (protocols for requests between computers) that aims to tackle this issue by allowing images and metadata to be requested in a standardised way. Via these APIs, particular regions of images can be requested in a specified quality, size and format. The associated metadata includes information about how the images should be displayed and in what order. As this metadata is standardised, different image viewers can be built that are all able to understand and display the same sets of images. The one increasingly used by the library for catalogue items is called the 'Universal Viewer'.

Another IIIF-compliant viewer, called LibCrowds Viewer, has been developed for In the Spotlight. The viewer takes advantage of the flexibility enabled by the APIs described above. Images and metadata already held by the British Library can be requested, combined with some additional configuration details, and used to generate sets of crowdsourcing tasks. This means that we don’t need to host any additional image data, nor are we tied to any institution-specific metadata structures. In fact, the system could be used to generate crowdsourced annotations for any IIIF-compliant content.

Transcriptions are collected in the form of Web Annotations, a W3C standard that was published at the start of this year. This is another step towards future interoperability and reuse. By adopting this standard we can share our transcriptions more easily across the Web and incorporate them back into our core discovery systems.

As well as making the crowdsourced transcriptions searchable via the library’s catalogue viewer, they will be made available via the IIIF Content Search API, further increasing the ways in which the data could be reused. For example, we could develop programmatic ways to search the collection for a particular person who performed in a certain play in a given location.

To enable such exciting functionality we first need to collect the data and since we launched volunteers have completed over 14,000 tasks, which is a fantastic start. Visit In the Spotlight to get involved.

09 November 2017

You're invited to come and play - In the Spotlight

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Mia Ridge, Alex Mendes and Christian Algar from the Library's Digital Scholarship and Printed Heritage teams invite you to take part in a new crowdsourcing project...

It’s hard for most of us to remember life before entertainment on demand through our personal devices, but a new project at the British library provides a glimpse into life before electronic entertainment. We're excited to launch In the Spotlight, a crowdsourcing site where the public can help transcribe information about performance from the last 300 years. We're inviting online volunteers to help make the British Library's historic playbills easier to find while uncovering curiosities about past entertainments. You can step Into the Spotlight at http://playbills.libcrowds.com

The original playbills were handed out or posted outside theatres, and like modern nightclub flyers, they weren't designed to last. They're so delicate they can't be handled, so providing better access to digitised versions will help academic, local and family history researchers.

Playbills compiled into a volume
The Library’s collection has over a thousand volumes holding thousands of fragile playbills

 

What is In the Spotlight?

Individual playbills in the historical collection are currently hard to find, as the Library's catalogue contains only brief information about the place and dates for each volume of playbills. By marking up and transcribing titles, dates, genres, participant volunteers will make each playbill - and individual performances - findable online.

We’ve started with playbills from theatres in Margate, Plymouth, Bristol, Hull, Perth and Edinburgh. We think this provides wider opportunities for people across the country to connect with nationally held collections.

Crowdsourcing interface screenshot
Take a close look at the playbills whilst marking up or transcribing the titles of plays

 

But it's not all work - it's important to us that volunteers on In the Spotlight can indulge their curiosity. The playbills provide fascinating glimpses into past entertainments, and we're excited to see what people discover.

The playbills people can see on In the Spotlight provide a fabulous source for looking at British and Irish social history from the late 18th century through to the Victorian period. More than this, their visual richness is an experience in itself, and should stimulate interest in historical printing’s use of typography and illustrations. Over time, playbills included more detailed information, and these the song titles, plot synopses, descriptions of stage sets and choreographed action from the plays help bring these past performances to life.

Creating an open stage 

You can download individual playbills, share them on social media or follow a link back to the Library's main catalogue. You can also download the transcribed data to explore or visualise as a dataset.

We also hope that people will share their discoveries with us and with other participants, either on our discussion forum, or social media. Jumping In the Spotlight is a chance for anyone anywhere to engage with the historical printed collections held at the British Library. We’ve created our very own stage for dialogue where people can share and discuss interesting or curious finds - the forum is a great place to post about a particular typeface that takes your fancy, an impressive or clever use of illustration, or an obscure unheard-of or little known play. It's also a great place to ask questions, like 'why do so many playbills announce an evening’s entertainment, ‘For the Benefit’ of someone or other?'. In the Spotlight’s open stage means anyone can add details or links to further good reads: share your growing knowledge with others!

We're also keen to promote the discoveries of project volunteers, and encourage you to get in touch if you'd like to write a short post for the Library’s Untold Lives blog, the English & Drama blog or here on our Digital Scholarship blog. If forums and twitter aren't your thing, you can email us digitalresearch@bl.uk.

Playbill from Devonport, 1836
In the Spotlight is an ‘Open House’ – share your findings with others on the Forum, contribute articles to British Library blogs!

 

What's been discovered so far?

We quietly launched an alpha version of the interface back in September to test the waters and invite comments from the public. We’ve received some incredibly helpful feedback (thank you to all!) that has helped us fine-tune the interface design. We also received some encouraging comments from colleagues at other libraries who work with similar collections. We’ll take someone saying they are 'insanely jealous' of the crowdsourcing work we are doing with our historical printed collections as a good sign!

We've been contacted about some very touching human-interest stories too - follow @LibCrowds or sign up to our crowdsourcing newsletter to be notified when blog posts about discoveries go live. We're looking forward to the first post written by the In the Spotlight participant who uncovered a sad tale behind a Benefit performance for several actors in Plymouth in 1827.

What can you do?

Take on a part! Take a step Into the Spotlight at http://playbills.libcrowds.com and help record titles, dates and genres.

If you are interested in theatre and drama, in musical performance, in the way people were entertained, come and explore this collection and help researchers while you’re doing it. All you need is a little free time and it’s LOTS OF FUN! Help us make In the Spotlight the best show in town.

Lots-of-fun
Join in, it'll be lots of fun!

07 September 2017

Introducing... Playbills In the Spotlight

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Mia Ridge, Alex Mendes and Christian Algar from the Library's Digital Scholarship and Printed Heritage teams introduce a new project...

Playbills were sheets of paper handed out or posted up (as in the picture of a Portsmouth theatre, below) to advertise entertainments at theatres, fairs, pleasure gardens and other such venues. The British Library has a fantastic collection of playbills dating back to the 1730s. Looking through them is a lovely way to get a glimpse at how Britons entertained themselves over the past 300 years.

Access_bl_uk_item_viewer_ark__81055_vdc_100022589190_0x000002
Passers-by read playbills outside a theatre in Portsmouth. From: A collection of portraits of celebrated actors and actresses, views of theatres and playbills,([1750?-1821?])<http://access.bl.uk/item/viewer/ark:/81055/vdc_100022589190.0x000002#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=164&z=-53.6544%2C795.6187%2C2422.3453%2C1335.8411>

 

Why do playbills matter?

The playbills are a great resource for academic and community researchers interested in theatre and cultural history or seeking to understand their local or family history. They're full of personal names, including actors, playwrights, composers, theatre managers and ticket sellers. The playbills list performances of plays we know and love now alongside less well-known, even forgotten plays and songs. But individual playbills are hard to find in the British Library's catalogues, because they are only listed as a group (in the past they were bound into volumes of frequently miscellaneous sheets) with a brief summary of dates and location/theatre names. The rich details captured on each historical page - from personal names to popular songs and plays to lost moments in theatrical history - aren't yet available to search online.

What is In the Spotlight?

We're launching a project called In the Spotlight soon to make these late 18th - late 19th century digitised playbills more findable online, and to give people a chance to see past entertainments as represented in this collection. In this new crowdsourcing project, members of the public can help transcribe titles, names and locations to make the playbills easier to find.

Detail from a playbill
Detail from a playbill


We're starting with a very simple but fun task: mark out the titles of plays by drawing around them. The screenshot shows how varied the text on playbills can be - it's easy enough for people to spot the title of upcoming plays on the page, but it's not the kind of task we can automate (yet). You'll notice the playbills used different typefaces, sizes and weights with apparent abandon, which makes it tricky for a computer to work out what's a title and what's not. That's why we need your help! 

How you can help

We've chosen two volumes from the Theatre-Royal, Plymouth and one from the Theatre Royal, Margate to begin with. You can find out more about the project and the playbills, or you can just dive in and play a role: https://playbills.libcrowds.com

This project is an 'alpha', work-in-progress that we think is almost but not quite ready for its moment in the spotlight. In theatrical terms, we’re still in rehearsal. Behind-the-scenes, we're preparing the transcription tasks for you, but in the meantime we're excited about giving people a chance to explore the playbills while marking up titles.

Your efforts will help uncover the level of detail important to researchers: titles; names of actors, dramatis personae; dates of performance, and the details of songs performed. Who knows what researchers will discover when the collection is more easily searchable? Key information from individual playbills will be added to the Library's main catalogue to permanently enhance the way these playbills can be found and reviewed for the benefit of all. The website also automatically makes the raw data available for re-use as tasks are completed.

What happens next?

We're taking an iterative approach and releasing a few volumes to test the approach and make sure the tasks we're asking for help with are sufficiently entertaining. Once we have sets of marked up titles for each volume of playbills, they're ready for the transcription task. Your comments and feedback now will make a big difference in making sure the version we formally launch is as entertaining as possible.

Please have a go and do let us know what you think: do the instructions make sense? Do the tasks work as you expected? Is there too much to mark and transcribe, or too little? Are you comfortable using the project forum to discuss the playbills? Are there other types of tasks you'd like to suggest for the pages you've seen? You can help by posting feedback on the project forum, emailing us digitalresearch@bl.uk or tweeting @LibCrowds.

Please consider this your official invitation to our dress rehearsal - we hope you'll find it entertaining! Join us and help us put playbills back in the spotlight at https://playbills.libcrowds.com.