drumroll please….

I introduce to you the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Media Strategist . . . Me! This is a new position in the newly-created division of Digital Media and Publications at the Library and it should offer lots of exciting opportunities to explore how the Folger’s digital resources develop. Those of you who have been following this blog and my twitter feed will know that I’ve had an ongoing interest in how digital tools might enable new ways of interacting with special collections, ranging from online publications (like the research blog I created for the Library, The Collation) and social media (like @FolgerResearch) to imagining not-yet-realized possibilities like topographies of books and smell-o-meters and virtual vaults. I can’t say yet what directions this new position will take me in, but I am excited to explore what I can do to make the Folger’s digital presence and offerings as inspiring and revolutionary as their physical holdings.  Continue reading

disembodying the past to preserve it

What follows is a keynote I gave at the Digital Preservation 2013 conference on July 23, 2013. If you’re curious, there’s a video up of the talk and the Q & A as well and a pdf of the slides I showed (some of which vary from what I’ve shown here).

“Disembodying the past to preserve it”

I am, as you’ve heard, not someone who focuses on issues of digital preservation. I’m a book historian and performance scholar who works at a cultural heritage organization that is focused on the preservation and exploration of centuries-old objects. I think about the digital and preservation from the perspective of someone who studies the past and seeks new ways to make it accessible to scholars and the public.

So since I spend a lot of time thinking about the history of books and since so many people see the rise of the digital heralding the end of print, I thought I would start off by looking back at the earliest surviving instances of moveable type in the West. We all know, I think, that the first book printed by Johannes Gutenberg was the bible in 1455. But that wasn’t the earliest instance of print. Gutenberg’s first printed text were indulgences—short formulaic texts sold by the Church and its deputies to fund various enterprises by promising purchasers they wouldn’t need to spend as much time in purgatory for their sins.

1454 indulgence (Rylands Library)

1454 indulgence (Rylands Library)

What we’re looking at is one of the earliest surviving copies of these get-out-of-jail-free cards. Now held at the University of Manchester’s Rylands Library, this indulgence was printed in 1454 and was issued to a specific buyer in 1455 on the 27th of February. (You can see why printed indulgences were so handy—the bulk of the text is the same from one to the next, and small blank spaces can be left to be filled in by hand with the particulars for each sinner.)

There are other copies of the Gutenberg indulgences that have survived. This one is a slightly later issue (it’s the 31-line indulgence, not the 30-line, for those of you who are bibliophiles). Now part of Princeton’s collections, this indulgence was issued on 29 April 1455 in Pfullendorf to Johannes Grosshans—you can just barely make out the fact that there is a manuscript insertion here, but this copy hasn’t survived in as nearly nice shape as the last one we looked at.

It’s astonishing, actually, that any of these indulgences survived. Very few of them did—even though print runs for indulgences were huge, often in the thousands, there are only 50 recorded surviving copies of the 31-line indulgence, and a mere 8 extant copies of the 30-line. When you look at an indulgence, it’s easy to see why they wouldn’t survive in large numbers. They’re just flimsy little things. Compare these two images, the first of someone holding Princeton’s indulgence I mentioned above…

… and this of a bound incunable (also in Princeton’s collections):

The first can be held in one hand (even in its framed state) while the other rests heavily in a chair (don’t try that in your reading room, please!). I think you can guess my point: the Aristotle is big and it’s durable because it’s big. You can’t easily tear or lose this book. But a single sheet of paper? That gets misplaced, it gets accidentally destroyed, it gets forgotten. A light breeze could blow it away if you weren’t paying attention. And once the holder has died? Do you need to hang onto an indulgence as a record of your grandfather’s purchase?

The disposability of indulgences is why they haven’t survived. But it’s also why the ones that survived did. Here’s what I mean: because the indulgences weren’t seen as precious documents to save, they were perfect to reuse for other purposes. And the early indulgence that survived often did so because it was used as waste paper in bindings. Without launching into a lecture on early modern binding structures, I’ll just say that bindings often incorporated paper leftover from other projects. Endpapers, spine linings, structural supports—binders needed materials to finish their books. And why would you use good blank paper—paper that could be used for other purposes—when you had scrap paper at hand? And so odds and ends of printed paper were incorporated into the bindings of books:

If we turn back to the images of the indulgences I’ve shown, you’ll see that being treated as disposable is how they survived. The 30-line indulgence now at Manchester was preserved in a binding—you can see the evidence of holes in the corners and the stain left from the leather turn-ins. And Princeton’s copy survived as pastedowns in a binding from the early 1470s. With Cambridge University Library’s copy of Wynkyn de Worde’s 1598 indulgence we see something slightly different: these are indulgences that were never sold and are still in sheet form, preserved in the binding of a bible. This is one of my favorite examples, because it doubles as evidence of something we normally wouldn’t see, the production technique displayed in the unfinished object.

Because it was disposable, it was preserved. It’s not a preservation technique I’d recommend, but it’s worked for more than a few texts.

I’ll let you deal with what this might mean for digital preservation (I know just a tiny bit enough about digital forensics to gather that bits of data cling to other bits of data and that you might be looking to recover someone’s novel only to find that other records of their life are interspersed with it). Instead, I’ll ask what lessons we might learn from this about using digital iterations of material objects.

For starters, it’s worth pointing out that I wouldn’t have been able to give this talk if these objects hadn’t been photographed and shared online. It was because I was looking for images of indulgences for a different talk that I came across these pictures and noticed that they all looked like binders waste. Discoverability shouldn’t be news, but it shouldn’t be forgotten either.

The problem that we’re facing, in my world, is that the digital objects we’re producing sometimes lead to wonky discoveries. Here’s one thing that has been bothering me recently: the size of books.

psalms unscaled

Here we have two books of psalms, one printed in Geneva in 1576 (on the left) and one in Florence in 1566 (on the right). They are, to all appearances, the same size.

psalms scaled

But this is how their comparative sizes should be displayed: the Italian psalter is 21 centimeters tall and the Geneva psalter is 13 centimeters, or about the height of a Sharpie. (Projected on a screen, of course, they appear to be significantly larger than a Sharpie, although perhaps on your device’s screen they are significantly smaller—a not unrelated oddity of working with digitizations of material objects: size isn’t stable.)

Here we see a collection of books as we would see them in the Folger’s digital image collection, displayed side-by-side:

sizeofbooks unscaled

Here are those same images shown in relation to each other—I arbitrarily chose one book as my standard, and then calculated the scale and adjusted the images from there:

sizeofbooks scaled only

This slide does a much better job of conveying the relative size of these books. But it’s a rotten way of browsing through a large collection of images if you’re at all interested in any feature other than size. In other words, if you want to treat these images as books—as objects that you hold in your hand and read—then you’re going to be dissatisfied. They’re always going to be digital surrogates (a phrase I hate), lacking the primacy of the original.

But what if we took the disembodied aspect of these images of books as an opportunity rather than a failure?

Here’s a fun fact about early printing that is all about its material process: many printed works are illustrated with woodcuts, images that are literally made from blocks of wood.

(I just want to make the aside that it’s pretty effing amazing that the Folger has the piece of wood that made that exact print—the other amazing thing is that on the other side of this piece of wood is carved another woodcut! Just like you’d reuse scrap paper in your bindings, you’d repurpose pieces of wood.) In any case, one of the results of illustrations being made from blocks of wood is that the blocks of wood could be reused to print illustrations in different works.

The Broadside Ballads Online project at the Bodleian has taken this fact and combined it with image search technology to begin to explore how images in Renaissance ballads are used and reused. Alexandra Franklin did some excellent work with this, starting with noticing a distinctive hat used in Unconstant Phillis, a late 17th-century lament by a shepherd about the woman he loves:


Using image match, Franklin searched across their ballad collection for other instances of the hat, pulling up 8 hits, including this one from The Noble Gallant.


What’s particularly fun about this reuse is that we see that although the hat is the same, the man wearing the hat is not!

Why might this be a useful discovery? Tracing the use of a woodblock across multiple printings and multiple works can help date printing; it can also help us think about iconography and shifting discourses. For me, this is also a useful discovery for the way it turns material objects into digital ones that can be dismembered and rearranged. It’s not strictly necessary to use digital tools to do this sort of image-hunting work: Ruth Luborsky and Elizabeth Ingram compiled their Guide to English Illustrated Books without the use of image matching technology. But it’s certainly much easier to do it with bits than with books.

What can digitization offer that material objects cannot? Tools to reshape objects that would break under physical pressure. The work done on The Great Parchment Book by the University College London Centre for Digital Humanities is the most recent and exciting example of what those possibilities are. The Great Parchment Book is a survey compiled in 1639 of all those estates in Derry managed by the City of London through the Irish Society and the City of London livery companies. It’s a remarkable set of records. But it’s also a collection of 165 leaves that were badly damaged in a fire in 1786. Through careful preservation, about 50% of the text was recovered, but the brittle, wrinkled parchment remained an intractable obstacle to further work. But after extensive physical preservation work on the manuscript and detailed imaging, the UCL team was able to virtually unwrinkle the pages (read about the preservation and digitization processes). About 90% of the text of the Great Parchment Book is now readable, and available for examination online as images of the leaves, enhanced images, or a transcription of the text.

In both of these cases, digitization makes available objects for study that would otherwise be restricted, either because they’re too fragile to handle or they’re too dispersed to work with. For someone invested in cultural heritage, these are remarkable accomplishments. We can’t study the past if we can’t access its records and artifacts.

But both of these projects are ones that require significant investments of time, money, and people. They’re not lightweight experimentations—you need high-resolution images, you need expertise in image manipulation, you need the physical objects at hand.

I want to end with a look at something that is the opposite of all this, something that builds off of what has already been done, publicizing and redeploying images without adding to them or, indeed, displaying them.

The Library of Aleph is a twitter account that tweets the captions of prints and photographs in the Library of Congress’s digital collections. The tweets are nothing more than the captions—no images themselves, no links to them. Just the captions, with occasional reminders that anyone can find these images by searching the Library of Congress. Here’s one tweet: “House burning during Groveland reign of terror—Negroes driven from homes throughout area.” Here’s a screenshot of the corresponding record:

House burning during Groveland Reign of Terror--Negroes driven from homes throug_2013-07-26_16-45-37

The Library of Aleph’s tweetstream the day after the verdict of George Zimmeran’s trial was announced was a relentless account of the history of African-Americans, from slavery through Jim Crow through the Civil Rights Movement. The person who created The Library of Aleph hadn’t created it for this purpose—it was really an account he put together to tweet out some of the interesting images he was finding without cluttering up his main account. But in his anger after the verdict, it became a platform for remembering and reliving our past.

I bring it up here because of this paradox: what makes the tweets so powerful is that they are disconnected from the material object they’re referencing. They’re just captions. We might gloss over images but I think we pause over these. What are we reading? Who wrote the captions? What does it mean to choose these words to describe these images?

I love the way @libraryofaleph connects the past to the present and the present to the past. Things that speak to us today can speak to what spoke to us in the past, and digital technologies can bring them together. But what I really take out of this in terms of what cultural heritage organizations can do with digital tools to preserve our past is that this is an account that came not from the Library of Congress, but from an unaffiliated user. The Library of Congress did all the hard work in collecting these works, in digitizing them, in creating their metadata, in making them discoverable, and then in making it open so that somebody else could do with it something powerful.

And it’s that that cultural organizations need to think about in the use of the digital objects we are creating. We need to make them open so that other people can do things with them that it would never occur to us to do ourselves. Preserve your data, create your metadata carefully, and then release it. Make it open so that it can be used, so that we can learn from it, and so that it can continue to be discovered by future users.

media transitions

This is a post I put together as part of an ongoing conversation with a group of folks who aren’t early modernists but are interested in media. I thought I’d look back at some examples of early print that disrupt our sense of what was typical. In the back of my head I was thinking about Matt Kirschenbaum’s work in Mechanisms and the sorts of tensions between how we perceive media and how it manifests itself—I’ve written about some of those ideas here, too, in my continuing curiosity about the distance between how we imagine early print and how it was experienced. But I’ve not added to that writing here, and have instead just collected some pictures of things that struck me (well, I did include captions). So let your imagination run wild in exploring what we might see or not see in these things. Use the slideshow to navigate through the images; click on any individual picture to be taken to it in the Folger’s digital image collection and to full identification of what it is. Feel free to leave comments with your thoughts or links to more images.



Last week, at THATCamp CHNM, I somehow found myself giving a 5-minute talk with slides. If you’ve been to an unconference, you know this is a crazy thing to have done—the joys of THATCamp is that you don’t give or listen to talks read at you. Instead, you discuss and make things. But in this case, this was an experiment proposed by Tom Scheinfeldt to see what happened when you uncoupled slides from talks, with one person writing the talk and one person building the slide deck having only the title of the presentation in common. (As it turned out, I ended up doing this with slides from Tom, which he advanced as he heard my talk, and automatically timed slides created by Mark Sample.) In any case, the experience was weird and mildly terrifying: THATCamp isn’t a space where I’m used to behaving like a talking head, and I had no idea what Tom or Mark had done or how it would fit with what I had done. I’m still not entirely sure what they did—the one time I turned to glance at the images I think I saw a photo of naked folks standing around a campfire, and that was so distracting I turned and faced forward again. But there’s a kernel of something real in my talk, an idea that I’ve been mulling over and that I’ll be returning to in the next year or so (if all goes well, I’ll be talking about this at a conference this fall and writing about this for a forthcoming collection on Shakespeare and performance). So to keep it from disappearing into the ether, I share with you my text:

Fragments of study

Think of the most remarkable performance you’ve seen. Think of everything you remember about it—what it looked like, what it sounded like, how it made you feel, the holistic experience of it. Now imagine writing about it. Describe it, record it, explain it. This is what people in my field do—my field being, in this instance, the study of modern productions of Renaissance drama. One of the big exciting things at the moment is the development of apps and online editions of Shakespeare’s plays, sites that combine the text of the plays with clips of performances. Instead of just reading Macbeth, you can experience it. Here’s Joe Shmoe reciting “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”; now here’s Kiran Singh doing the same speech in a different production. These fragments of productions give a sense of access to live performance in a way that most readers of a script cannot achieve on their own.

If we take seriously the idea that Shakespeare’s plays continue to resonate with us centuries after they were written, then we have to take seriously the understanding that they do so because we continually reinhabit them and make them speak to us anew by performing them. It’s not the words that are timeless, but the voicing of the words that reinscribes them for each time. If we teach in literature classrooms, if we read in armchairs, then we have to find ways of conveying the importance of performance to our reception of Shakespeare.

But clips of performance are only clips; they reproduce fragments of something that is more than the sum of its parts and in breaking that larger whole into smaller bits, they diminish what it means. Talk to any actor and ask whether there’s any connection between what they do in the last act to what they did in the second act. Talk to any director and suggest there are no patterns and resonances across a production. See what sort of response you get.

And yet this is what we do when we study performance in this way. We quote moments of it, and we move on.

And this is what we do when we study literature, is it not? We quote moments of it, and we move on.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is [.....]

I understand why we do this. How do you quote a whole? Don’t we have to break it down into smaller pieces to serve as our landmarks? How do you make sense of what is large and magnificent and full of meaning without finding details to hang onto?

But I want to pause and ask: what damage are we doing by breaking the whole into fragments? Why do we prioritize the convenience of clips over the messiness of art?

Maybe I needn’t be so melancholy about this. It’s also true that fragments can be tantalizing, full of exciting possibilities that make you want more. Some of the most exciting finds in my field are fragments of objects—my field in this instance being early modern book history. There are bits and pieces of old manuscripts and printed works that survive only in remnants. There are inky fingerprints left by printers, fragments of identities long since lost to us. Archaeologists, art historians, historians, literature scholars—we all dwell in fragments and discovery.

But I think that’s precisely the difference. The fragments that survive? They’re links to a past that would otherwise be lost; they spark our imagination and light our curiosity. But the fragments that we create out of other people’s creations? They serve us. We use them to make our points, we scatter them behind us, we move on.

[....] a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Or maybe not nothing—I certainly don’t want to claim Macbeth’s viewpoint as my own. But maybe we should be resisting the ease with which we fragment art to dissect it.

cfp: SHARP @ RSA 2014

In an exciting turn of events, Adam Hooks and I are organizing the slate of SHARP panels at RSA for the 2014 meeting in New York. If you’ve been following Adam’s “breaking things apart” series on his blog and if you’ve seen my twitter musings recently, you won’t be surprised to learn that the theme we’re working with is fragmentation and gathering. Read our call for papers below, share it with anyone you think might be interested, and consider sending us your submissions!

Call for Papers: SHARP @ RSA 2014

The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading & Publishing (SHARP) will sponsor a series of panels at the Renaissance Society of America’s annual meeting in New York City, 27-29 March 2014. SHARP @ RSA brings together scholars working on any aspect of the creation, dissemination, and reception of manuscript and print and their digital mediation.

For the 2014 conference, we are soliciting papers that address the issues of fragmentation and gathering, broadly conceived, in early modern English and/or Continental books and manuscripts. We invite submissions that consider one or more of the following topics:

  1. Fragments: How does the production and survival of texts as discrete material objects shape our understanding and use of them? We might think of fragments in terms of how texts were made (pieces of type, leaves of paper) or in terms of how they are experienced today (surviving fragments).
  2. Gatherings: How does the grouping of discrete objects into collections of more or less coherence shape our understanding and use of textual objects? Gathering might take the form of the minute to large scale (quires of paper, sammelband, libraries).
  3. Fragments and Gatherings: How do fragments turn into gatherings? When do gatherings break down into fragments? What sort of study of book history and material textuality is engendered by these moves?

Please send a 150-word abstract and a one-page CV to Adam Hooks (adam-hooks@uiowa.edu) and Sarah Werner (swerner@folger.edu) by June 7th (note that this is earlier than the RSA’s own deadline).

All participants must be current members of both RSA and SHARP.

For details of RSA 2014, see http://www.rsa.org/?page=2014NewYork. For more information on SHARP, see http://www.sharpweb.org/

What do we want from online facsimiles of Shakespeare?

Over at The Collation last week, I wrote a blog post providing a quick explanation for what might be gained from looking at multiple copies of digital facsimiles of the First Folio and linking to the eight copies I’ve found. Mostly what I was interested in there was the availability of such things and a taste of the joys of copy-specific reading. Here I want to look at what actually matters to me a bit more: the usability of such resources. It should be perfectly clear, but I’m going to say it anyway, just to be safe. This is my personal site and I am not representing the Folger’s point of view here, only my own as a user of such resources.

Before I look at specific examples, here’s what I want as a scholar:

  • high-resolution cover-to-cover images, zoomable to, say, larger-than-life size with full clarity so that I can pick out details on pieces of type;
  • choice between viewing as pages and viewing as a book with two-page spreads that, ideally, convey the depth of the book and the shifting balance of pages as you move through it so that I know where in the volume I am;
  • navigation synced to plays (with modern acts and scene divisions), to signature marks, and to page numbers so that I can easily find my way to wherever I want;
  • cataloging information that tells me something about the copy I’m looking at; at a minimum, shelfmark and identification of which pages are not original F1 leaves, but preferably including information about provenance, binding, marginalia, uncorrected pages, and other copy-specific details;
  • cataloging information that tells me something about the digital surrogate I’m looking at; at a minimum, when it was built and who built it;
  • a CC-NC or, even better, a CC-BY license that will allow for downloading and reusing at a minimum specific images and, preferably, the entire work, so that I can share it in my teaching and scholarship and so that I can compare multiple copies;
  • and since I’m dreaming here, the ability to read offline in a friendly interface so that I can access it even when I’m (gasp!) without a good internet connection;
  • and the ability to add my own annotations, so that I can keep track of what I’m finding.

Well. That’s not asking for much. Maybe someday all my desires will be met, but it certainly hasn’t happened yet. And it won’t happen unless we start advocating for what we need in these resources. (My focus here is on the First Folio, but my points hold for any digitized book and, to a slightly lesser degree, to any digitized textual work. We all need transparent records, digital copies that are available to reuse, and high-resolution images that convey not only the words on the item but the physical manifestation of that item.)

So in the spirit of helpful critique, here’s how the 8 copies currently available for free online stack up. (N.b. I’ve linked to catalog records where I can find them in the headlines. West numbers refer to the number given the copies in Anthony James West’s census of First Folios. Full descriptions of all these copies can be found in West and Rasmussen’s Descriptive Catalogue; quick takes on which copies have leaves missing or in uncorrected states can be found at the end of my Collation post.)

tl;dr I imagine many of you won’t read all the way through this 4,000-word post, so here’s the unsurprising upshot: digital projects don’t age well. For the First Folio, that means that what used to be cutting-edge in terms of quality and interface can, 5 to 10 years later, can be woefully behind the times in offering what users want. We need to plan ahead so that we can offer users the tools they want now while also building in reuse for future users. That means, above all, super high-quality images, open access, clear documentation, and constant exploration.

Folger Shakespeare Library, copy no. 68 (West 126)

Available as page spreads in the Folger’s digital image collection, as page spreads and as a pdf through the World Digital Library; downloadable as individual page openings and as a pdf.

This tends to be my go-to copy of the First Folio when I need to check what’s in it and when I need to zoom in for good details. I like this copy in part because it’s a complete copy—all the leaves are original F1 leaves, rather than facsimiles or replacements from other copies or later editions—and it has some nice manuscript markings setting off some passages. (I always like reminders that books aren’t pristine collectibles but objects to be used.) I also like the Folger’s digitization of it. It’s cover-to-cover, so you can see the Wodehouse bookplate in the front, and the full-page spreads show the depth of the volume as well: in this image from Measure for Measure, you can easily spot from the visible page edges that we’re still well near the front of the volume.

Folger STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68, sig. F4v-F5r

Folger STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68, sig. F4v-F5r

I like, too, that the images are high-resolution enough that you can really zoom in and see details. Here is a screenshot of the most zoomed-in view of the same opening (click on the image to enlarge):

screenshot of zoomed-in view of Folger's copy 68

screenshot of zoomed-in view of Folger’s copy 68, including the navigation tool in the lower right

I also like that it’s easy to download individual images from the Folger’s Luna interface; the full-page spread that you see above is the maximum size that is allowed for downloading; click on it and you’ll see how big it is. And it’s easy to link to individual openings (see the examples that I’ve included above). If you’re a more adept Luna user (or if you’ve read Jim Kuhn’s tooltip posts in The Collation), you’ll find that you can link to zoomed-in views or to view of multiple images, too (see, for instance, this comparison of two copies). Information from the Folger’s incredibly thorough catalog records is included in Luna, so it’s easy to understand what you’re looking at without leaving the image; information is also provided identifying the image, including the signature marks (but not, however, page numbers or modern act/scene divisions). There isn’t any obvious information about when the images were taken or anything else about the dates or tools involved in the production of the digital images and interface.

But what I don’t like about using this also comes from the Luna interface. It’s not particularly easy or intuitive to quickly find your way to specific places in the volume. If you’re looking for something in King Lear and you know your way through the First Folio already, your instinct will be to scroll through the thumbnails until you find the beginning of the play. But that gets annoying. When I was looking for a page that included some of the marginalia I mentioned, the easiest way to do it was to flip through the pdf I downloaded from the World Digital Library, find the opening that looked good, and then locate that in Luna by skimming the thumbnails. The pdf is not very high resolution in and of itself, so while it’s fine for full-page spreads, if you try to zoom in to see details, it blurs out pretty quickly. Here’s a rough equivalent to the zoomed-in view from the online version, this one from the pdf (it’s about 200%):

zoomed-in detail of pdf of copy 68

screenshot of zoomed-in detail of copy 68 pdf

So I switch back and forth between the two when I’m trying to locate the details of something specific. It’s also worth mentioning, speaking of ease of use, that the pdf file has most of the page openings rotated 180°. The best option is to download it and then use a tool like PDF Toolkit to rotate all but the first and last two pages of the file.

If you’re looking for a specific play, it’s possible to construct a search to just pull up, say, Measure for Measure in copy 68. Use “Advance Search” to search “Call Number” for “STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68″ and “Image Details” for “Measure for Measure”; when you get the results, sort them by “Multiple Page Sort Order” and *phew* you’ve got your play. There used to be links on the Folger’s website for early copies of the plays, including in F1 and relevant quartos, and my understanding is those should be restored soon (I’ll update this with the relevant link when that happens).

The World Digital Library’s interface is built around the same images that the Folger provides through Luna. It seems like it should be slightly easier to navigate (instead of going through thumbnails, you can click arrows to turn to the next or previous opening), but I find the transitions between the images to be so slow as to be more frustrating than helpful.

The Folger has licensed this, as with the rest of the items in its digital image collection, with a CC-NC license.

Folger Shakespeare Library, copy no. 5 (West 63)

Available as page spreads in the Folger’s Digital Image Collection, as a pdf from Octavo editions, and as page spreads through the Rare Book Room; downloadable as individual page openings and as a pdf.

This is my go-to pdf, though not my go-to online digital copy. It’s a good copy of the First Folio—only a few original leaves missing—and was one of the first really high-resolution digitizations of the First Folio that was easily available. Octavo chose it as the basis of their edition of the First Folio, published on CD-ROM in, I think, 2001. That edition, available for purchase but also freely through the Folger’s catalog record, is rich not only for the nice digitization of the First Folio, but for the incredible contextual material accompanying it, including essays by Arthur Freeman, Stephen Orgel, and A.R. Braunmuller, as well as a copy of Peter Blayney’s amazing booklet on the First Folio. It’s a wealth of information. (The pdf file at the Folger has been corrupted; at the moment it has the contextual material, but not F1 or Blayney. I think it will be replaced with a better file soon; I’ll update this when that happens.) If I had to recommend one digital First Folio to an interested non-specialist, the Octavo pdf is what I’d choose, given the strengths of its digitization, its ease of navigation, and its fabulous contextual material.

The pdf is easy to navigate—you can use the arrows to move back and forth, of course, but each play and act/scene is bookmarked so that you can jump straight to it. And the resolution is ok, maybe slightly better than the WDL pdf of copy 68:

screenshot of zoomed-in detail of copy 5

screenshot of zoomed-in detail of copy 5 pdf

The digital copy in Luna has the same interface advantages (cover-to-cover! full-page openings showing depth!) and disadvantages (argh, navigation!) of copy 68, but you can’t zoom in to quite the same level of detail in copy 5:

screenshot of zoomed-in detail of Folger copy 5

screenshot of zoomed-in detail of Folger copy 5

The images through the Rare Book Room are the same as in Luna, but with a different interface. I like the ability to use arrows to navigate through the book, but it doesn’t let you zoom in very much.

Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, Arch. G c.7 (West 31)

Available online in page spreads, downloadable as individual page images, and eventually as a pdf (I’m positive I saw something about this latter point somewhere, but now I’m not finding my steps back to it; I hope it’s actually true and not something I totally hallucinated).

This is the most recent addition to the collection of digitized First Folios; you can learn more about the publicly funded campaign to digitize it on the project’s blog, “Sprint for Shakespeare.” It’s also a (kind of) infamous copy of the First Folio. The Bodleain acquired it in 1624 and then—gasp!—subsequently got rid of it, apparently in 1664 when the Third Folio (which it purchased) made the First “obsolete.” The Bodleian’s copy of the First reappeared at the University in 1905, when Gladwyn Turbutt (an Oxford undergraduate whose family owned the book since the early eighteenth century) brought it in for advice about the binding. It was immediately recognized as the long-gone Bodleian deposit copy and the Turbutt family delayed its sale to the highest bidder (*cough cough Henry Folger*) to give the Bodleian a chance to raise the money to purchase it, which it did. What makes this copy interesting is not only the Bod’s foolishly getting rid of it and its spectacular return, but the fact that the book remained in its original binding and showing all the wear-and-tear of its usage.

The online interface of this copy’s digitization comes in two options. The first is through the BookReader interface developed by the Internet Archive. It lets you navigate the book either through thumbnail images or in one-page or two-page spreads. There are bookmarks to let you easily jump to specific acts and scenes in specific plays, and in the two-page opening view, you can easily see a visualization of page edges to show where you are in the volume and to flip ahead to specific pages:

our favorite opening in Measure for Measure, as in the Bodleian's interface

our favorite opening in Measure for Measure, as in the Bodleian’s interface

I generally find this a good way to navigate a book—it’s easy to work out where you are and to get to where you want to be. The fake visualization of the fake edges is a little weird, though, and while I love the pop-up that shows you where your mouse is when it’s jumping ahead, I couldn’t actually get the book to jump when I clicked on the margins. And in this particular incarnation, however, I’m disturbed by the gutter issues. Since many of the images of individual pages includes a glimpse across the gutter of the opposite page (not a bad thing for an individual image), when they’re stitched together into a page opening, the weirdness across the gutter is, well, weird.

On the other hand, working with the individual page images is super easy. There’s a link that takes you to pages of thumbnails, each of which is identified both by signature mark and by play title and page number; the image below, for example, is labeled “F4v / MM p.68.”

downloadable image from the Bodleain's copy

downloadable image from the Bodleain’s copy

It’s a good resolution (click on the image above to be able to enlarge it to its full size), and I like the touch of including the ruler to indicate the leaf’s size. It’s also wonderful that the Bodleian has released this under a CC-BY license and clearly indicates what that means in terms of usage. They have a great statement on the site’s accessibility, too (it looks like that’s something required by Oxford; I wish more places would keep accessibility in mind as they are designing their sites). I wish the site was more clearly linked to the cataloging information (I got to the catalog record by navigating through the link to the Bodleian’s main website in the upper right corner of the site and the searching in the catalog for the shelfmark). And I haven’t figured out an obvious way to be able to link to specific openings in the book view, although you can link to individual page images (check out the front pastedown, for instance!).

The Bodleian’s biggest strength is combining ease of use for non-scholars and for scholars. By using the Internet Archive interface, they’ve made it friendly for general browsers to look through the book. (As Pip Willcox said in a tweet to me, given that the public funded the project, the Library felt strongly that it had to be fully open-access—and, obviously, that it had to be friendly to use.) And by separating the book into individual page images, they’ve made it usable for scholars like me. That, I think, is key to successful digital First Folios—they need to work not only for the finicky experts but for the general user. And I think the Bodleian has mostly achieved that, unlike most of the other digital copies.

 Meisei University (West 201)

Available online as individual page images with transcriptions of marginalia; downloadable as individual page images. Akihiro Yamada’s book on the marginalia and his transcriptions is available in its entirety as well.

This is a fascinating copy of the First Folio, and the most interesting copy of the ones that have been put online. It has extensive early modern marginalia dating, according to Akihiro Yamada’s study of it,  from the 1620s or 1630s in a Scottish hand. There are underlinings, dots, and marginal notes focusing primarily on summarizing the play. The annotations are understandably the focus of this interface; it’s really not designed to read the play easily, but does offer a range of ways into the marginalia. You can navigate to individual pages by choosing the play and either act/scene/lines or through-line numbers; you can also navigate by signature marks or by image number. Once you’re at a page, you can then use the arrows to browse to the next or the previous image. It’s not instantly obvious—the landing page is a black screen instructing you to “Please Search Page Image” rather than the first leaf of the volume. But once you’re on an image, you have the option of enlarging the page (the initial result is thumbnail sized), enlarging the marginal notes, and reading a transcription of the note.

Here, for example, is a screenshot of a page from Measure for Measure, enlarged to its largest side, along with a detail of the marginalia and its transcription:

screenshot of Meisei copy showing marginalia and its transcription

screenshot of Meisei copy showing marginalia and its transcription

As you can tell, the page itself doesn’t enlarge particularly well, though the details of the marginal notes are a bit better. You can also download a page image:

downloaded page image from Meisei copy

downloaded page image from Meisei copy ( (c) Meisei University)

It’s pretty small, but its resolution is okay (as elsewhere, click to enlarge to its full size). Their copyright page states that “All rights reserved; no part of this database may be reproduced or reprinted in any form, except for non-profit-making, educational or scholarly use. In such cases, please cite the copyright of Meisei University and write to the contact address.”

As I said, though, the point of this digitization isn’t to read the First Folio, it’s to study its marginalia. So while you can search by page image, you can also search the marginalia, using either the “lexicon” option (words that appear in Yamada’s index) or the “concordance” option (words from the entire marginalia corpus):

searching the Meisei marginalia corpus

searching the Meisei marginalia corpus

I don’t really have a project that would use this, but I like that they’ve enabled it. The (comparatively) low resolution and the sometimes not-intuitive interface are likely residues of the project’s age: it began in 2002 and ended in 2008. Quibbles about that aside, it’s wonderful that Meisei, which bought the book in 1980, has taken these steps to make its riches explorable.

Since I’ve already gone on long enough, and am feeling a bit burnt out, my examinations of the remaining online First Folios is going to be speedier.

University of Pennsylvania, Furness Library (West 180):

Available as individual page images and possible to save as jpegs. Penn’s interface makes it easy to navigate the First Folio by play or by page number. It’s also possible to compare F1 to other works if you follow the “select a text for comparison” option in the upper left—if you’re interested in Hamlet, there’s a lot of goodies in there, and it’s nicely displayed side-by-side. Information about the specifics of the copy or of the image aren’t obvious. (I happen to know that this interface was put together in the mid-1990s, since I had grad school friends who worked on it.) The book begins not with its cover (although you can catch glimpses of it and page edges here) but with the blank recto of Ben Jonson’s poem, “To the reader” (sig. ΠA1r). (Penn also has a copy of the Peter Blayney booklet I mentioned above, which is handy to know if it’s not available through the Octavo pdf.)

Penn's First Folio, with our Measure for Measure page in its largest state

Penn’s First Folio, with a screenshot of our Measure for Measure page in its largest state

Brandeis (West 153) and New South Wales (West 192)

I’ve grouped these together because they are both available at Internet Shakespeare Editions as individual page images than can be saved as jpegs. The Brandeis copy is also available through Perseus, though I find that interface doesn’t have much to recommend it over the ISE. Neither one of these is a great facsimile (the NSW is oddly pink and there’s a lot of bleed-through in the Brandeis—shooting with a black page behind the leaf would have helped with that, wouldn’t it?), but the interface is easy to navigate. I particularly like how if you’re looking at a specific place in one copy, you can jump straight to that location in the other copy. There’s also a nice “compare” feature, just as in the Penn above, but here with more options.

MM in Brandeis copy

MM in Brandeis copy

MM in New South Wales copy

MM in New South Wales copy

Miami University (West 174)

Available online as individual page images that can be saved as jpegs. I love that Miami has done this but it’s very hard to use and the quality of the digitization, by current standards, is not good. It’s easy to initially find your way through the book to a specific play, as you can see from the screenshot below, and it generates a stable URL to bring you back to a specific page (here’s my MM example).

the navigation interface for Miami's copy

the navigation interface for Miami’s copy

Once you’re at the page you want, you can zoom in pretty deeply (the pull-down menu says “100%”) but it’s actually larger-than-life-size, as you can tell if you click on the image below to see its full size.

detail of Miami's MM

detail of Miami’s MM

I’m not a big fan of the quality of the image (bleed-through is a lot more distracting in images than it is in real life), but it’s more than usable. What I find really difficult is that once you’ve zoomed into the image, you lose all the navigation tools—the sidebar menus that let you move to different pages completely disappears. Even if you return to a smaller size (the zoom level pull-down is still at the top of the screen), that doesn’t return the sidebars. Perhaps there’s a metaphor in here, about not being able to see the forest for the trees.

A final note, for those of you who actually read all the way through this: I am delighted that all these copies exist and that all these institutions have made them openly available. Where I offer criticisms it’s in the spirit of love and improvement. As I said above, it’s amazing how quickly these projects age: ones built just a decade ago look impossibly old-fashioned and not up to snuff. By looking at how they all stack up, I hope anyone thinking about how to digitize copies of books not only thinks about how they’re being used but how they can be remade so that they continue to be used.