A Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama

The Folger Shakespeare Library has been awarded a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to launch A Digital Anthology of Early Modern English Drama. A Digital Anthology will create a hub for exploring data and eventually documentary editions of over four hundred extant printed English plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries that were publicly performed between 1576 and 1642, the era of the first commercial playhouses in London.

Background and context

A Digital Anthology is administered by the Folger Institute and incorporates staff from the Folger’s divisions of Digital Media and Publication and the Central Library. A distinguished scholarly advisory committee will consult on the two years of work funded by a Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant in the NEH’s Division of Preservation and Access.

As with many textual encoding projects in early modern humanities, A Digital Anthology will be built on the foundations of texts transcribed from digitized images of the subscription database Early English Books Online (EEBO) by its Text Creation Partnership Initiative (TCP). The plays will be presented in TEI XML-encoded transcriptions of early printed witnesses, creating a coherent and well-documented textual corpus for linguistic analysis and an accessible, curated collection of playtexts for reading. Our flexible online platform, to be built by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, will allow users to browse, search, and read the plays, as well as curate collections of texts for download in a variety of formats, including XML and PDF.

With over 80% of these plays in its holdings, its suite of digital resources, and the long tradition of advanced scholarship and scholarly editing that it has fostered, the Folger Shakespeare Library is uniquely positioned to sponsor this pioneering initiative. Consultation with peers from related early modern digital humanities projects will sharpen discussion of issues of compatibility, sustainability, and adaptation across the major corpus of EEBO-digitized texts.

Folger personnel

Meaghan Brown, CLIR-DLF Fellow for Data Curation
Elizabeth Williamson, Digital Anthology Encoding Fellow
Michael Poston, Digital Merlin
Owen Williams, Assistant Director of Scholarly Programs, Folger Institute
Erin Blake, Head of Collection Information Services

Senior partners

Kathleen Lynch, Executive Director of the Folger Institute
Dan De Simone, Eric Weinmann Librarian
Eric Johnson, Director of Digital Access

Phase one


In this first phase of the project, the Digital Anthology will have a tiered system of encoding.

  • The total corpus consists of 403 plays which were first professionally performed in London between 1576 and 1642, which made their way into print before 1660, and for which a printed copy of this early edition still exists.
    • The roughly 300 plays that are represented in the Folger’s collections will have their Hamnet records enhanced with new "genre" controlled vocabulary approved by the Rare Books and Manuscripts division of the American Library Association.
    • Extensive metadata for these texts, including comprehensive comparison with standard bibliographies and databases including Greg, Wiggins, Harbage, and DEEP will be used to create flexible search and browsing options.
    • 343 of these plays, transcribed from the EEBO-TCP texts and further processed by Martin Mueller for his Shakespeare His Contemporaries corpus[1] will be hosted on the Digital Anthology’s website for free use, with documentation about their treatment.
  • A subset of approximately thirty-six texts will be consistently encoded in TEI P5, with attention to dramatic and textual features that inform research problems in early modern drama, editing, and literary studies, as an online anthology of non-Shakespearean drama.[2]
    • These texts will be further edited and enriched to provide documentary editions for research, reading, and teaching in the undergraduate classroom. Our goal is to allow users to manipulate the texts in a number of genre-specific ways, such as retrieve speaking parts for a specific character or identify and tag types of stage directions. Additionally, we foresee students searching for texts that have particular features, such as epilogues, prologues, or songs; or organizing texts by main author, publisher, players, or place of performance. This functionality would create a digital anthology of non-Shakespearean drama that facilitates student and researcher access to a rich array of early modern drama.
  • Six model texts will be selected for more advanced encoding and annotation focusing on example research questions, with classroom applications in mind.

New digital facsimiles

  • New digital facsimiles will be created for six plays from Folger copies. Selected from among the short-list, these will allow us to link the transcription to images of the page, creating easy navigation between searchable text and early modern page layout. This subset will be selected to satisfy a variety of needs: a text may be chosen based on the poor quality of extant EEBO images, because the Folger has particularly rich holdings of that edition, or because the textual history is especially complicated. At least one of the six copies will be selected for its manuscript annotations. This will provide a perspective on EEBO’s selection criteria (see the History of Early English Books Online for an explanation). It will also provide for new methods of image tagging and cross-compatibility with the Folger Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) project.


  • A discovery interface will be created for readers to search, browse, and download texts for both reading (in .pdf and .html) and computational analysis (in .xml and.txt formats). Both the most recently enhanced encoded version and all previous versions will remain available, as an illustration of the different ways a witness may be encoded for different purposes.
  • Metadata collected for the whole corpus will facilitate browsing; part of this metadata, including genre terms newly approved by the Rare Books and Manuscripts division of the ALA, will allow for enhanced bibliographic description at the Folger and elsewhere.
  • The interface will include search capabilities that allow for modernized and original-spelling queries.

Policies and procedures

  • We will document workflows for encoding and imaging texts, with validated labor and time costs.
  • We will establish a training regime for successive communities of encoders.
  • Consultation with peers from related early modern digital humanities projects will sharpen discussion of issues of compatibility, sustainability, and adaptation across the major corpus of EEBO-digitized texts.

Workshops and other programming

The Digital Anthology’s enriched texts and new facsimiles will be the focus of a series of text-encoding, editing, and annotation workshops beginning in the summer of 2016. The 2016 workshop, aimed at college faculty, and a subsequent workshop in 2017, aimed at undergraduates, will allow participants to collectively produce discovery layers, such as online instructions and resources for teaching, to ensure productive access to the corpus. Members of the scholarly advisory committee will lead sessions of the workshops, and Folger encoders will collect lists of interpretive decisions for debate in the workshops.

Looking ahead

In future stages of the project, the entire corpus may be encoded at the higher ‘enriched’ level. Version control may be established with other digital texts hosted by the Folger, and classroom modules may be developed for distributed curation. Developing the workflows to move individual playtexts from one encoding level to the next is a significant part of this scalable project. These workflows will provide material for future encoders and clear electronic provenance for the resulting texts. Our workflows and transparent standards for metadata will also facilitate collaboration with the variety of other digital humanities projects deriving from the EEBO-TCP corpus. These plays and their associated pedagogical materials will become part of a growing suite of interoperable, freely available digital texts here at the Folger, and will contribute a model for production as well a variety of openly available data for early modern digital humanities projects elsewhere.

Further reading

  1. Mueller provides an introduction to Shakespeare His Contemporaries at his "From Shakespeare His Contemporaries to a Book of English" on his Scalable Reading blog. For an early description of the project, see Mueller's 2013 Hilda Hulme Memorial Lecture, "Shakespeare His Contemporaries: collaborative curation and exploration of Early Modern drama in a digital environment." The text of the lecture can be read in Digital Humanities Quarterly or viewed here:
  2. The basis for our encoding will be SHC files that subsequently undergo further correction, emendation, and changes to their encoding. Mueller's SHC project has recently released a new tranche. Information can be found here.