Michael J. Price Lab for Digital Humanities

English Playbills

English Playbills


Scott Enderle, Digital Humanities Specialist

Funding Period: 
May, 2018

The English Playbills project began by working with the large number of playbills held in the Kislak Rare Books Collection at the University of Pennsylvania. These include some 1,750 playbills for performances in London and other cities in Great Britain and Ireland between 1770 and 1850. Since full information concerning London theaters before 1800 has been chronicled in The London Stage 1660-1800: A Calendar of Plays, 13 vols. (Southern Illinois University Press, 1960-68), we chose to concentrate on Penn’s post-1800 holdings of provincial playbills, on on its post-1800 London playbills.

Our initial database design involved our working with two undergraduate fellows funded through PURM grants from Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships, and a Price Digital Humanities Lab seed grant. The two PURM fellows spent 10 weeks of the summer of 2017 doing data entry and tweaking the database design. By the end of the summer, they had exhausted Penn’s holdings, compiling some 800 records in convertible JSON format. In addition, the Price Fellow also helped to manage the download and organization of some 60 gigabytes of playbills that the British Library made public in 2017. Much of the autumn of 2017, therefore, has been spent in trawling through these files to ascertain the theaters and years they cover.

The Price fellow, meanwhile, helped Scott with the coding for our database design, as well as the form through which our PURM fellows entered their data. Although the initial design of this software was motivated by this specific project, our design process took into account the needs of potential future DH projects. Much of the functionality of the form and the accompanying search interface is generated dynamically, using a standard JSON data schema that is easy to modify or swap out. This process is simple enough that the Price Lab has already begun the process of tailoring the software to the needs of another project, and we plan to release an open-source version once the project has reached maturity.

Our plans for the coming summer are again to employ two PURM fellows via CURF funding. Having learned from last summer’s experience, we wish also to hire a graduate student to manage the interns and to work with us to determine the direction of the database’s population — particularly which theaters and years we should first.

Prospecting Playbillsby By Louisa Shepard in OMNIA