Historic Philly playbills get modern-day crowdsourcing

An innovative online crowdsourcing project allows the public to transcribe digitized 19th- century Philadelphia theater playbills in the Penn Libraries collection.

Librarian examines several playbills spread out on wood conference table in a historic library room lined with bookshelves filled with books.
Laura Aydelotte examines some of the 19th-century Philadelphia theater playbills in the Penn Libraries collection that are included in a project that allows the public to help transcribe digitized copies. An upcoming conference at Penn will explore digital approaches to researching theater history. 

The Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia has a special place in history as the nation’s oldest continuously operating theater, producing thousands of shows since opening in 1809. The playbills that advertised the productions in those first decades are held in a collection at the Penn Libraries

In an innovative effort to transcribe the plethora of information on those playbills into a digital database, a Libraries researcher has created The Philadelphia Playbills Project, a grant-funded effort that includes a crowdsourcing website to make it possible for the public to help. 

The fragile playbills have been digitized, but for the information to be searchable it must be entered into a database. Crowdsourcing through a platform on Zooniverse is one way to tackle that challenge. 

“Whoever wants to can log in and transcribe these interesting documents. There’s lots of cool stuff to discover,” says Laura Aydelotte, director of the project. 

Discoveries made through the project will be the centerpiece of a Jan. 17-18 conference, “Digital and Archival Approaches to Theater History,” bringing scholars from across the country to the Kislak Center of Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts

The conference will also take a broader look at using archives and digital projects for theatrical research. Part of the discussion will be how to handle other objects related to theater in library collections, such as props and costumes. 

The Philadelphia Playbills project includes 700 playbills from the Libraries collection, most of them from the Walnut Street Theatre, which was also named the National Theatre during its long history. 

“The project and conference are putting Penn at the forefront of developing new ways to present digitally the data about these playbills and theatrical objects, and to mine all this information that has been sitting around in boxes for years,” Aydelotte says. “It is adding to larger knowledge to history of theaters in Philadelphia and in America, and lays the groundwork to link to other institutions.” 

The pilot project contains 700 playbills from the Walnut Street and other Philadelphia theaters from performances throughout the 1800s, all in the Libraries collection. 

But the effort, supported by a $75,000 Digital Humanities Advancement grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, is far from local. The Penn Libraries is partnering with Harvard University, the New York Public Library, and the Folger Shakespeare Library to create an East Coast collaboration not only to share but also to connect their playbill data, creating a network of information through a new format named linked open data.

“This is emerging technology that all the libraries are interested in exploring,” Aydelotte says. “We not only want to get this data, but we want it to be shareable across institutions.” 

Will Noel, director of the Kislak Center, says he believes this is a great project for today’s library studies. “Library students and the public are engaging with our unique collections through the use of digital technologies harnessed and managed by a librarian,” he says.

The playbills are packed with details on the many performances in an evening. “It’s like the binge-watching of the 19th century,” Aydelotte says. 

Ideally five people will independently transcribe each playbill to make sure they are correct, Aydelotte says. But she emphasizes that no one expects each transcription to be error-free. “Participation over perfection,” she says. “Our goal is for as much participation as possible.”

The playbills, which span the 1800s, are assigned at random by the website for transcription. The playbills are all from Philadelphia, most of them from the Walnut Street Theatre, which at one point was named the National Theater, but some from other venues as well, such as the Chestnut Street Theatre, which was also the Chestnut Street Opera House. 

Two Penn graduate students started the transcription process before the website went live to the public in November, and they have done one round on nearly all of the playbills. 

“The goal is to transcribe all of the essential information as well as any unique text that appears, if indeed any does, on each playbill,” says Daniel Mackey, a Ph.D. candidate in classical studies in the School of Arts and Sciences who also works at the Kislak Center. “Being involved with the Playbills Project has been a nice foray into a subject I know relatively little about, and has given me further experience as a transcriber, which is always helpful in my field.”

Librarian with skull that has been used as a theater prop.
The Libraries collection includes costumes and props, like a real skull that was used in productions of Hamlet. 

Samantha Pious, who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and literary theory and is currently revising her dissertation, says she has transcribed 670 of the playbills and compiled an extensive list of contributors with their links and biographical information. “Working with such vast amounts of information taught me to be more methodical in my research and more organized in my note-taking,” she says. 

Part of the January conference at Penn is to discuss sharing information on playbills and also other theatrical objects in library collections. The Penn Libraries has several important items, including a skull used in Hamlet with names of then-famous actors written in ink on the top: Edwin Booth, Charles Keene, and Charlotte Cushman. 

“It was a prop,” Aydelotte says. “But it is real.”

Photographs of the skull are available online, along with the names and other descriptive information, in the Furness Theatrical Image Collection, making the fragile object and its history accessible to the public. 

“It is making these objects, that have been sitting in the archives in boxes unused, more visible,” she says. “We want to make people at Penn and beyond more aware of the collection we have at the Libraries.”