The Philadelphia Playbills Project has just completed its first year of work thanks to the support of a Level II Digital Humanities Advancement Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The project was based at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania.
The Philadelphia Playbills Project (PPP) takes historic playbills from the archives of Penn Libraries’ collections at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, and turns them into data everyone can use to learn about the history of performance in America’s oldest theaters. The project is supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Digital Humanities Advancement Grant with collaboration from the New York Public Library (NYPL). The sample set of 700 digitized playbills on the project document the history of works performed in Philadelphia theaters from across the 19th century. Performances encompass a range, from adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to an evening advertised as a combination of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and the appearance of a “Living Elephant.” These playbills also document the people who performed these plays, such as Edwin Booth, brother of Lincoln’s assassin (though a loyal supporter of Lincoln himself), or Laura Keene, the first woman to become an influential theater manager in New York and Philadelphia, who was performing the night of that assassination and held the dying Lincoln in her arms.
The work of the first year of the project included performing two approaches to transcribing information from this sample set of playbills, producing two sets of data, and hosting a capstone conference on Theater History in the digital age. The first approach to transcription was the launch of an initial test phase for a crowdsourcing effort on Zooniverse, where anyone interested in helping transcribe the history on these playbills is invited to participate. The initial phase of this crowdsourcing consisted of a small, targeted test group of participants, and the crowdsourcing platform will continue to be active for the coming year as interest has begun to build from instructors, scholars, and local historians.
While the crowdsourcing efforts are starting up, over the last year dedicated project assistants for the PPP have produced structured transcriptions of the actors, performances, dates, ticket prices and more for the entire beginning sample set of 700 playbills. This transcription work was then converted to a dataset that can become the foundation for future analysis and the development of methodologies for generating such data in the future on a larger scale with other playbill collections in the future. Unique identifying links called Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) have been added to this transcribed data to create data in a Linked Open Data format (JSON-LD), which will allow it to more easily be shared, re-used, and connect with other projects and resources in the future. The project has similarly enhanced metadata for images in the Furness Theatrical Image Collection at Penn Libraries, which include digitized images of engravings and photographs of actors, props used in theatrical performances, and other theatrical ephemera and memorabilia. Both the data for the playbill transcriptions and for the Furness Theatrical Image Collection are now publically available for download in JSON-LD format on github.
The Capstone Conference for the Philadelphia Playbills Project, “Digital and Archival Approaches to Theater History,” took place January 17th and 18th at the Kislak Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The conference included an interdisciplinary set of speakers presenting on current approaches to Theater History research, library work, and digital projects. The conference also included a pop up exhibit of materials from the Furness Shakespeare Collection at Penn Libraries. The event created a venue for scholars and librarians to learn about current work on Theater History from the perspective of both material sources and digital projects based on them, to engage in conversation about current best practices, and lay the foundation for future conversation and collaboration.