People-powered scholarship projects liberate information locked away from easy public access. Laura Aydelotte, researcher in the Penn Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to lead The Philadelphia Playbills Project in collaboration with the New York Public Library and free the information within an important archive to anyone who is interested. The project takes historical playbills from the archives of the Penn Libraries collections at the Kislak Center and turns them into data everyone can use to learn about the history of performance in the United States’ oldest theaters.

The sample set of 700 digitized playbills document the history of works performed, encompassing the 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.”  They 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. For Aydelotte, the most rewarding part of the process has been discovering the unsung heroes, the firsts, and the new windows into approaching this history.

The Philadelphia Playbills Project tests three different approaches to gathering data from archival materials. Project team members will produce the data for the project from a combination of community crowdsourced transcriptions on the Zooniverse platform, Optical Character Recognition technology, and in-house transcriptions. A final dataset formed from a combination of these methods will be converted to Linked Open Data, a format that will allow the playbills data to connect more readily with other data across the internet, which will aid users in the discovery process. According to Aydelotte, this research is groundbreaking. “The Philadelphia Playbills Project will produce a previously unavailable data set that will support new research about the American Theater, and develop and refine methodologies for generating such data on a larger scale with other playbill collections in the future,” she says.

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