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The golden age of the playbill: how the British Library is rediscovering Victorian posters

Playbills from the British Library collection Playbills from the British Library collection
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The British Library owns more than 240,000 posters and playbills, in some cases more than 300 years old, but to be protected, they need digitising. Nick Smurthwaite hears how the library is getting thousands of volunteers involved

Theatre posters haven’t always been as design-led and eye-catching as they are today. In the Victorian era they were as busy and text-heavy as a restaurant menu.

Not only did they give every detail of production and cast but also, more often than not, a synopsis of the play, a breakdown of each scene, and a critical guide to how an audience should respond.

“It was not dissimilar to the TV guides we experience today,” says Christian Algar, curator of the British Library’s printed heritage collections. “I guess people booking a show liked to know exactly what they were getting. Quite often shows would last four or five hours, and include the whole spectrum of popular entertainment – farce, melodrama, acrobatics, comic songs.”

The British Library is in the process of digitising the majority of its collection of 240,000 historic theatre posters and playbills – at present bound into 1,000 volumes – extending public access worldwide and ensuring preservation for future generations.

“Some of the 19th-century playbills are incredibly fragile, so every time they are handled there is a risk they will be damaged,” says Algar, adding: “Ironically, the earlier ones from the 18th century are sturdier because they were printed on better quality paper.”

The collection dates back to the early 18th century when posters and playbills first started to be published. They were purely informative, with no embellishments. By the Victorian era – the golden age of the playbill – printers were experimenting with different fonts and type sizes to make them more engaging.

“It was really the start of theatre marketing,” says Algar, who is overseeing the project with Mia Ridge, digital curator in the British Library’s digital research team. “There was clearly a correlation being made between catching the onlooker’s eye and putting bums on seats.”

The Library’s collection of posters and playbills derives from a great many sources over a very long period, a mixture of zealous individual collectors, theatres and production companies. They relate to productions from many regional venues, including fairs and exhibitions, as well as London shows.

Since last November, Algar and his team have been crowdsourcing online in order to recruit members of the public to help with the mammoth task of transcribing all this material on to the BL’s website. Currently the volumes are catalogued generally, with hundreds of sheets of playbills simply described by location and rough dates. Algar says: “There will never be enough staff resources to catalogue this type of material and it means their immense research value is left under explored and under used for all kinds of studies.”

To date, in excess of 100,000 playbills and posters have been made available to view online. The sheets were digitised several years ago with optical character recognition, or OCR, technology to make them word searchable, Algar says, but there was a snag.

“The OCR machine reading has limited success recognising and reading the variety of type used on playbills because of the differences in design, size and layout,” Algar says. “This is why we have turned to digital innovations, using people power, and the good old human touch, to help accurately transcribe key details including titles, genres and dates.”

They are then made available to search through the library’s ‘resource discovery tool’.

Since last October, a total of 1,698 online volunteers have registered – Algar describes it as “fantastic participation” – and they have generated the searchable text.

‘Hundreds of thousands of people are looking at historical prints who wouldn’t ordinarily do so’

There are controls in place to prevent inaccuracies, or “silliness”, the curator says, with transcriptions verified by more than one person transcribing a detail before it is accepted.

“There is some degree of ‘data cleaning’ involved by library staff to ensure the veracity of results,” he adds. There is a small team working on the project at the library, but there are no full-time resources dedicated to it.

“For me the great value and joy of this project [titled In the Spotlight] is that it’s getting hundreds of thousands of people looking at historical prints who wouldn’t ordinarily do that,” says Algar.

“What most people know about the British Library is that we have a copy of every British book ever published, but few are aware that we keep all this printed ephemera because, up until now, it has been difficult
to access.”

He adds: “In the Spotlight makes these digitised playbills a lot more findable online, and gives everyone a chance to see past entertainments as represented in this incredible collection.”


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