THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Digital scholarship blog

46 posts categorized "Literature"

18 April 2019

Collecting Emerging Formats

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The Emerging Formats project, started in 2017 by the British Library and the other five UK Legal Deposit Libraries, has been investigating the rise of new complex digital publications that could pose new challenges for libraries and other cultural institutions in terms of collection and preservation. In particular, this project has chosen to prioritise three formats: eBook mobile apps, web-based interactive narratives, and structured data.

These formats reflect the changes and developments in both technology and storytelling in contemporary digital culture. This project meets the Legal Deposit Libraries’ purpose to respond to innovation and to represent the changing nature and diversity of the UK publishing industry. It also fulfills the libraries’ role of long term preservation, as these formats are by their technical nature ephemeral and at risk of loss.

After holding a workshop last November to better define the challenges related to complex digital objects preservation, the British Library organised a series of user experience testing sessions, with the help of an external consultant, Bunnyfoot Ltd. A first round of interviews was carried out at the British Library and at the library of Trinity College Dublin and it identified a strong user interest in collecting and preserving emerging formats, which was later confirmed by two service design group workshops at Bunnyfoot Lab.

80 Days app
Interacting with the 80 Days app for iPad

We are now in the process of testing different collection management methods, using a number of publications selected during the scoping phase as case studies. For example, we are collecting Inkle’s eBook mobile app 80 Days in different file formats (Android app; PC version) and through different acquisition methods (file transfer; download via access code) to test their viability and the different implications they might have in terms of access and preservation. 80 Days is a narrative-based interactive adventure, which offers a unique take on Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days – set in an alternative steampunk universe, the story requires the reader’s active participation in order to progress, with thousands of different routes and possible outcomes.

In the case of capturing web-based interactive fiction, two different web archiving tools have been tested – The British Library’s own Annotation and Curation Tool (ACT) and Rhizome’s WebRecorder. While each tool has distinct characteristics which might make it more suitable to a specific type of interactive fiction, both tools proved effective in capturing web-based narrative to a degree. A collection around the topic of e-publishing trends and emerging formats is currently being developed on the UK Web Archive website, with the possibility of nominating yours or someone else's work for inclusion.

As well as investigating collecting methods for complex objects, we are also exploring the requirements for access. At present, only the websites that we have collected using our ACT tool are available in the Library. We are also exploring the possibility of collecting contextual information around these publications. Collecting descriptive material around an object has been tried for time based digital media and digital games. Capturing and preserving sources of information such as websites, trailers, and press kits might prove invaluable in clarifying authorial intent and object use once a format is obsolete or cannot be accessed anymore.

To find out further information about the Emerging Formats project, please see our project page.

This post is by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator of Digital Publications on twitter as @giugimonogatari.

18 February 2019

Updated Eighteenth-Century Collections Online

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The traditional, somewhat stereotypical image of the researcher of things past has not changed much in recent times. There is nothing easier than to imagine a scholar sitting at a scarcely illuminated wooden desk, surrounded by piles of old hardbound volumes, spending hours on end rummaging through the sheets in search of a clue.

In the field of eighteenth-century studies, this is certainly still the case. Scholars often go on a pilgrimage to prestigious repositories such as the British Library. However, in the last fifteen years or so, technology has started to offer attractive alternatives to the pleasure of travelling to London. Powered by Gale-Cengage, the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (commonly referred to as ECCO) is a well-known resource that provides access to English-language and foreign-language publications printed in Britain, Ireland and the American colonies during the eighteenth century. This extensive collection contains over 180,000 titles (200,000 volumes) and allows full-text searching of some 32 million pages. These are digital editions based on the Eighteenth Century microfilming that started in 1981 and the English Short Title Catalogue.

New ECCO main screen
New ECCO home page

Moving away from its classic web-1.0 design, the Gale-Cengage team recently decided to revamp the layout of ECCO – indeed, of their entire portfolio of archive products, which include among others the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Burney Newspapers Collection. The aim is to make the Gale Primary Sources experience more consistent and intuitive for the user. At the head of this delicate operation are product managers Doran Steele and Megan Sullivan, who lead a nine-person team of software developers, content engineers, researchers and designers. Not quite the IT-only type of personnel, Doran and Megan are scholars themselves, respectively holding degrees in History and Information Science and a remarkable passion for all things past. They are responsible for the maintenance of the existing ECCO interface, as well as the development of the upcoming design refresh.

During a recent interview they gave to the authors of this post, Doran and Megan declared their objective of evolving ECCO in line ‘with user expectations of modern online research experiences’. Their driving force was stated very clearly as a bottom-up process. ‘This redesign’, they explained, ‘is informed by user feedback and market research’. A beta version of the new site has been available since the second half of 2018 to enable the Gale-Cengage team to gather feedback about the new design. The product managers specified that the final transition to the ‘new’ ECCO will only be completed once they feel confident that the new experience ‘successfully meets the needs of our users’. The final goal is a better user experience, ‘one that is faster and more intuitive’. To achieve this, a range of new features have been included, such as more filters on search results; results more relevant to the search queries; data visualization tools; improved subject indexing; more options for adjusting the image; and the ability to download in a text format the OCR (optical character recognition) version of a volume. The latter feature will be a particularly welcome innovation for scholars that often need to look up the occurrence of a single word or cut and paste long chunks of text.

ECCO search results
New ECCO search results screen

The options for adjusting the page view are another significant novelty. The beta version boasts new settings to quickly select the preferred zoom level, as well as sliders to increase or decrease the brightness and contrast of the page. These improvements are particularly welcome considering that the quality of the scans remains unchanged. The page quality is not directly related to ECCO. The portal simply allows the consultation of the digitised microfilms included in the first collection (also known as ECCO 1, comprising over 154.000 texts) and the digitisation of a second, smaller collection of books (ECCO 2, over 52.000 titles). This raises an important issue. A plethora of relatively unknown, yet precious eighteenth-century material remains difficult to consult because, on top of the uneven quality in the texts that came out of eighteenth-century printing presses, the original microfilming technology that was employed for the first collection yielded relatively low-resolution results. This causes some hiccups with OCR recognition, thus discouraging the use of quantitative methodologies. But the issue is all the more salient when the category of eighteenth-century visuals is taken into account. At a time when British engravers multiplied in numbers to illustrate the newly-discovered wonders of the natural world or the archaeological remains of Roman cities in England, illustrations became an essential aspect of the eighteenth-century book market and reading experience. While for essential texts such as William Stukeley’s Itinerarium curiosum (1724) or Eleazar Albin and William Derham’s A Natural History of Birds (1734) more refined scans can be found elsewhere, a large number of texts is digitally available only through ECCO 1. Scholars interested in images are either to focus on well-known texts that have been digitised by other providers – with serious consequences in terms of canonicity – or eventually need to plan a visit to major libraries to consult the relevant volumes in person, somehow defeating the very idea of digital reading. Either way, the study of visual culture is somewhat inhibited. Nevertheless, the ‘new’ ECCO promises to enhance the user experience and to offer even more opportunities to engage with outstanding repositories of primary material. If you already had a chance to use the new version, we encourage you to get in touch with Doran and Megan: as your feedback and suggestions can improve ECCO even further.

New ECCO text screen
New ECCO image viewer screen

This post is by Alessio Mattana, Teaching Assistant in Eighteenth-Century Literature at the University of Leeds (on Twitter as @mattanaless), and Dr Giacomo Savani, Teaching Assistant in Ancient History at the University of Leeds (on Twitter as @GiacomoSavani).

06 February 2019

Interactive Fiction in the UK

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Nick Montfort suggests interactive fiction stories are ‘computer programs that display text, accept textual responses and then display additional text in reaction [to those responses]’.[1] Since there’s no agreed definition of interactive fiction (IF), Montfort’s is as good a starting point as any. ‘Textual responses’ might include typing, clicking on a link or selecting a choice from a menu, and it’s these differing textual responses which assist in further identifying and categorising interactive fiction. However, it’s also worth remembering that interactive fiction is constantly evolving, with new types emerging all the time, and Montfort’s definition is almost fifteen years old. Therefore, any work which makes significant use of text that the reader might adjust or affect in some way may be considered interactive fiction.

As one strand of the Emerging Formats project, the British Library is currently investigating UK Interactive Fiction (who is creating it, what kinds of work they’re creating, and what tools are being used) – in order to determine what the collecting priorities might be. The focus is on UK works specifically because this aligns with the Library’s collecting priorities with regard to born-digital works, arising out of legal deposit regulations.

The Interactive Fiction Competition identifies three broad types of IF: parser-based, Choose Your Own Adventure and hypertext. Parser-based works are sometimes referred to as ‘text adventures’. These involve typing commands in order to interact with the textual world and usually include puzzle solving. Choose Your Own Adventure (or CYOA) stories are more like the Fighting Fantasy game book series, or the recent Black Mirror episode ‘Bandersnatch’, providing readers with a series of choices which create a branching narrative. Hypertexts are linked passages of text much like a website, but the clickable links may provide choices or ways of exploring the world of the text. In these latter two types the reader’s role is less likely to involve solving puzzles and more likely to centre on exploration, interacting with characters or simply choosing how the story turns out. (Although, of course, these elements may be present in parser games too).

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Detectiveland by Robin Johnson, 2016 Winner of IFComp

As part of my Innovation Placement, I’ve explored 97 works by 62 creators so far. Of these, 39 are parser-based, 27 are hypertexts, and 8 are choice-based, with the remainder being other formats such as multimedia (for example, Lucy English’s collection of video poems, The Book of Hours), websites (such as Krishan Coupland’s Hotel), or bespoke or hybrid systems developed by the creator (a particularly good example of this is Robin Johnson’s Zeppelin Adventure, made with his homegrown Versificator engine which creates IF that is somewhere between parser-based and choice-based). I also came across a few formats not neatly described by the types outlined above, such as collaborative wiki-based interactive fiction. However these works (like many interactive fiction works) often contain no identifying information regarding the creator and therefore it’s very difficult to determine if they are UK created. In these instances I have tended to assume that if the creator prefers to remain entirely anonymous, the likelihood is they would also prefer not to have their work archived, and so these particular texts won’t form part of the collection.

There are plenty of works which do have an identifiable UK-based author, though. These cover a wide range of genres including comedy, horror, crime, romance, historical fiction, drama, ‘slice of life’ and mystery, although science fiction and fantasy are particularly well represented (around 26 of the works might be considered fantasy, while around 17 could be categorised as science fiction).

Of the parser-based games, so far Inform stands out as the most popular tool. This is perhaps unsurprising since Inform was created by British IF author and programmer, Graham Nelson in the mid-nineties, making it one of the longest running tools for interactive fiction creation. This means it has a robust community around it, a good collection of existing works to draw inspiration from and a large number of tutorials and discussion forums to aid new creators. Popular IF writer Emily Short uses Inform to produce many of her works, including the critically acclaimed Galatea, a retelling of the Pygmallion myth in which the reader-player attempts to converse with a living statue which is able to respond in myriad ways. However, there are also works made with Quest, such as Luke A. Jones’ Drumsticks a puzzle story about reuniting a band for one last gig.    

The majority of the hypertext games are created with Twine, although usage of the tool’s full range of features varies wildly. For example, Ed Sibley’s ghost story Dead Man’s Fiesta incorporates a host of images, coloured backgrounds and dynamic text, while Bethany Nolan’s crime caper Let’s Rob a Bank adopts Twine’s default layout, relying only on branching choices and variables to tell her story. A further Twine highlight is Raik by Harry Giles, a poetic fantasy story written in English with a Scots translation. (Sort of. To say more would be to spoil it!)

While the CYOA category is somewhat smaller, there are still several tools and approaches in use. Most popular is Inkle Studio’s Ink, used to create a variety of stories including Eleanor Hingley’s Unreal Estate, in which the reader-player roleplays as an estate agent attempting to sell properties to a variety of supernatural clients. The house-buying creatures are randomised and so several replays are required in order to meet them all.

The oldest work so far is paradoxically also one of the newest. The Beast of Torrack Moor by Linda Doughty (née Wright), originally written in 1988 for the ZX Spectrum was lovingly recreated for the web in 2018 by Chris Ainsley (with the original author’s permission) using his Adventuron engine. Despite what its name might suggest, this is more of a quintessentially English mystery than a blood-curdling horror.

As this brief overview indicates, UK IF creators employ a wide array of tools, styles, genres and topics, and even within the same tools and genres, there’s a huge amount of experimentation and variation. I hope to uncover yet more in the coming weeks and months, as well as finding ways to preserve them for future reader-players. If you are a UK-based creator of web-based interactive fiction, please do not hesitate to get in touch, or alternatively, feel free to nominate your work for inclusion via the UK Web Archive.

This post is by the Library's Innovation Fellow for Interactive Fiction Lynda Clark, on twitter as @Notagoth. You can find out more about the Library's Emerging Formats project here.

[1] Nick Montfort, Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, 6th edn (Massachusetts, USA: MIT Press, 2005), p.vii.

30 January 2019

Reading 35,000 Books: The UCD Contagion Project and the British Library Digital Corpus - Workshop & Roundtable

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A guest post by Geradine Meany, Professor of Cultural Theory in the School of English, Drama and Film and Derek Greene, Assistant Professor at the School of Computer Science, both at the University College Dublin who are organising a FREE workshop and roundtable together with the BL Labs team on Thursday 20 February 2019 at the British Library in London.

How do you set about finding specific references and thematic associations in the massive digital resource represented by the British Library Nineteenth Century Book Corpus, originally digitised through a collaboration with Microsoft?

The Contagion, Biopolitics and Cultural Memory project at UCD Dublin set out to illuminate culturally and historically specific understandings of disease and contagion that appear within the fiction in the corpus. In order to do so, the project team extracted over 35,000 unique volumes out of a total of 65,000 in English and built a searchable interface of 12.3 million individual pages of text, which can be filtered and sorted using the corpus metadata (e.g. author, title, year, etc). The interface incorporates an index of the topical catalogue of volumes used by the British Library from 1823-1985 (within Alston index). Using a combination of OCR text recognition and manual annotation, we have extracted data the two top levels of the index, covering over 98% of the English language texts in the corpus. So for the first time it is possible to reliably identify and extract fiction, drama, history, topography, etc, from the corpus.

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Extracting data from 35,000 digitised books

To allow researchers to further filter the corpus to identify texts from niche topic areas, the interface supports the semi-automatic creation of word lexicons, built upon modern “word embedding” natural language processing methods. By combining the resulting lexicons with existing corpus metadata and the data extracted from digitised version of the Alston Index, researchers can efficiently create and export small topical sub-corpora for subsequent close reading.

The Contagion project team is currently using information retrieval and word embeddings to identify texts for close reading. This combination allows us to track key trends pertaining to illness and contagion in the corpus, and interpret these findings with particular reference to current and historical debates surrounding biopolitics, medical culture and migration. Clusters of associations between contagion, poverty and morality are identifiable within the corpus. However, to date our research indicates that Victorians were more worried about religious contamination from migrants and minorities than they were about contagious diseases.

A key feature of the project is the intersection of methodologies and concepts from English literature, automated text mining, and medical humanities. This involves using data analytics as a mode of interpretation not a substitute for it, a way of engaging with the extent and complexity of cultural production in the nineteenth century. Cultural data resists giving definitive yes or no answers to the questions put to it by researchers, but the more cultural data we analyse the better we can map the processes of cultural change and continuity, in all their complexity. The process of tracking themes, topics, and associations enabled by the new interface offers an opportunity to work with and far beyond the existing canon of nineteenth century fiction, itself radically expanded by the last 20 years of scholarship. The identification within the corpus of a very large collection of 3 volume novels indicates that the popular novel is very well represented, for example, while the ability to identify and extract ‘Collected Works’ indicates which writers their contemporaries expected to remain central to the tradition of fiction.

On February 20th 2019, the FREE ‘Reading 35,000 Books’ workshop and roundtable will present the project’s work to date, and will also include discussion by scholars of nineteenth century literature and the British Library Labs of the future development and use of the new searchable interface, including exporting topical sub-corpora for further research.

The event is supported by the Irish Research Council.

 

24 January 2019

Innovation Fellow for Interactive Fiction in the Emerging Formats Project

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There’s an episode of book shop-based comedy, Black Books, in which Fran, played by Tamsin Greig, starts a new job. She has no idea what her role actually consists of, and yet, somehow, she becomes good at it and delivers a rousing presentation, all while never fully understanding what she has done. Every new research project feels somewhat like this. There are usually continuities from previous projects, but because this one is new there will inevitably be new things you don’t know and how do you find out what you don’t know if you don’t know it?

Fortunately, thanks to the Library’s excellent Web Archiving, Contemporary British and Digital Scholarship teams, I’ve managed to fill in most of those blanks pretty quickly. My name’s Lynda Clark and I’m currently undertaking an AHRC/M3C Innovation Placement embarking on a six-month research project called ‘Emerging Formats: Discovering and Collecting Contemporary British Interactive Fiction’. My primary goals are to get a sense of the ‘shape’ of contemporary British web-based interactive fiction – the kinds of tools British creators are using and the works they are making with them; and to explore how those works might be preserved for future readers and researchers.

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Boxes created at a British Library hosted emerging formats project workshop

I’m a maker of interactive fiction myself and have produced a variety of works, often silly (almost always silly, in fact) but sometimes more serious, the most substantial of which was my interactive novella Writers Are Not Strangers, produced as part of my recently submitted creative-critical PhD thesis. Even amongst my own modest back catalogue there is a fair amount of variation in styles, interfaces and tools used, some of which I know will likely scupper the webcrawlers commonly used to archive web-based digital work. Six months isn’t long to find a solution to this challenge, but I’m hoping I can at the very least start to create a record of works to preserve and at least categorically determine what doesn’t work to enable future researchers to move towards what does.

This is where you come in. If you’re a UK-based creator of web-based interactive fiction, please nominate your work for inclusion in the UK Web Archive, where it could (technology permitting) be included in a collection. This will mean the system takes regular ‘snapshots’ of the nominated website and stores them forever! You can make your nominations via the UKWA’s site or by contacting me.

This post is by the Library's Innovation Fellow for Interactive Fiction Lynda Clark, on twitter as @Notagoth. You can find out more about the Library's Emerging Formats project here.

23 August 2018

BL Labs Symposium (2018): Book your place for Mon 12-Nov-2018

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The BL Labs team are pleased to announce that the sixth annual British Library Labs Symposium will be held on Monday 12 November 2018, from 9:30 - 17:30 in the British Library Knowledge Centre, St Pancras. The event is free, and you must book a ticket in advance. Last year's event was a sell out, so don't miss out!

The Symposium showcases innovative and inspiring projects which use the British Library’s digital content, providing a platform for development, networking and debate in the Digital Scholarship field as well as being a focus on the creative reuse of digital collections and data in the cultural heritage sector.

We are very proud to announce that this year's keynote will be delivered by Daniel Pett, Head of Digital and IT at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge.

Daniel Pett
Daniel Pett will be giving the keynote at this year's BL Labs Symposium. Photograph Copyright Chiara Bonacchi (University of Stirling).

  Dan read archaeology at UCL and Cambridge (but played too much rugby) and then worked in IT on the trading floor of Dresdner Kleinwort Benson. Until February this year, he was Digital Humanities lead at the British Museum, where he designed and implemented digital practises connecting humanities research, museum practice, and the creative industries. He is an advocate of open access, open source and reproducible research. He designed and built the award-winning Portable Antiquities Scheme database (which holds records of over 1.3 million objects) and enabled collaboration through projects working on linked and open data (LOD) with the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (New York University) (ISAWNYU) and the American Numismatic Society. He has worked with crowdsourcing and crowdfunding (MicroPasts), and developed the British Museum's 3D capture reputation. He holds Honorary posts at UCL Institute of Archaeology and the Centre for Digital Humanities and publishes regularly in the fields of museum studies, archaeology and digital humanities.

Dan's keynote will reflect on his years of experience in assessing the value, impact and importance of experimenting with, re-imagining and re-mixing cultural heritage digital collections in Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums. Dan will follow in the footsteps of previous prestigious BL Labs keynote speakers: Josie Fraser (2017); Melissa Terras (2016); David De Roure and George Oates (2015); Tim Hitchcock (2014); and Bill Thompson and Andrew Prescott in 2013.

Stella Wisdom (Digital Curator for Contemporary British Collections at the British Library) will give an update on some exciting and innovative projects she and other colleagues have been working on within Digital Scholarship. Mia Ridge (Digital Curator for Western Heritage Collections at the British Library) will talk about a major and ambitious data science/digital humanities project 'Living with Machines' the British Library is about to embark upon, in collaboration with the Alan Turing Institute for data science and artificial intelligence.Throughout the day, there will be several announcements and presentations from nominated and winning projects for the BL Labs Awards 2018, which recognise work that have used the British Library’s digital content in four areas: Research, Artistic, Commercial, and Educational. The closing date for the BL Labs Awards is 11 October, 2018, so it's not too late to nominate someone/a team, or enter your own project! There will also be a chance to find out who has been nominated and recognised for the British Library Staff Award 2018 which showcases the work of an outstanding individual (or team) at the British Library who has worked creatively and originally with the British Library's digital collections and data (nominations close 12 October 2018).

Adam Farquhar (Head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library) will give an update about the future of BL Labs and report on a special event held in September 2018 for invited attendees from National, State, University and Public Libraries and Institutions around the world, where they were able to share best practices in building 'labs style environmentsfor their institutions' digital collections and data.

There will be a 'sneak peek' of an art exhibition in development entitled 'Imaginary Cities' by the visual artist and researcher Michael Takeo Magruder. His practice  draws upon working with information systems such as live and algorithmically generated data, 3D printing and virtual reality and combining modern / traditional techniques such as gold / silver gilding and etching. Michael's exhibition will build on the work he has been doing with BL Labs over the last few years using digitised 18th and 19th century urban maps bringing analog and digital outputs together. The exhibition will be staged in the British Library's entrance hall in April and May 2019 and will be free to visit.

Finally, we have an inspiring talk lined up to round the day off (more information about this will be announced soon), and - as is our tradition - the symposium will conclude with a reception at which delegates and staff can mingle and network over a drink and nibbles.

So book your place for the Symposium today and we look forward to seeing new faces and meeting old friends again!

For any further information, please contact labs@bl.uk

Posted by Mahendra Mahey and Eleanor Cooper (BL Labs Team)

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!