Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO)

Early Modern Manuscripts Online, or EMMO, is a multi-faceted project funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) that will provide scholars and the general public with convenient web access to transcriptions, images, and metadata for a substantial number of English manuscripts from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


The EMMO project will make a variety of rare manuscripts from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s premier collection available to users for free via an easy, searchable web site with high-quality images and consistent transcriptions of letters, diaries, wills, coats of arms, literary pieces, recipe books, miscellanies, and more. This combination of resources will enhance research in many disciplines by removing barriers to the rich content of manuscripts, such as: location, early handwriting, and the current inability to search manuscript texts online. At the same time, EMMO will also promote the learning of paleography (the study of pre-modern handwriting methods) through events such as conferences, classes, and online tutorials so users may attain the skills necessary to understand and appreciate these manuscripts in their original form.

The project will advance in phases, so by the end of the three years that are currently funded, the following will be complete:

Phase 1: Create and prepare transcriptions
Phase 2: Develop an optimized, searchable database
Phase 3: Design online tutorials
Phase 4: Roll out shareable software

Educational events highlighting paleography and scholarly research regarding the study of manuscripts will take place throughout all of the above phases and continue beyond these early stages of the project.

Events and presentations

Various events are planned to promote EMMO and its various offerings over the next three years; all of these will encourage discussion of current and potential research projects in paleography and crowdsourcing. A cursory list is below. Check back for updates and additions as the project progresses.

Paleography and transcriptions

The majority of manuscripts written in English during the period stretching from 1500-1700 were written in what has come to be known as secretary hand, a mode of handwriting that most people today cannot read accurately without advanced training in paleography. Since transcriptions customarily serve as the bridge between secretary hand and our present-day typefaces, EMMO will provide searchable transcriptions for ease of use. However, EMMO will also give users the opportunity to learn about paleography and make their own transcriptions.

As more scholars—or anyone interested in the early modern period—engage with the manuscripts directly, intriguing questions about and investigations into language, history, and culture will undoubtedly emerge. Software tools are under development by Folger staff to assist users in the learning process.

Through a combination of methods that includes gathering existing edited and published transcriptions, producing transcriptions at the Folger, organizing special events such as transcribathons, and encouraging robust online crowdsourcing efforts, EMMO will create a body of transcriptions that are then vetted for accuracy and consistency, and published online for study.

The viewable transcriptions in EMMO’s approved collection will follow established conventions of semi-diplomatic transcription i.e., minor alterations will be made in the transcribed text. These changes enhance clarity and facilitate reading for a twenty-first century audience, for example archaic letters such as “þ” (thorn) would be updated to “th.” It is important to remember that the transcriptions in EMMO—as is the case with all transcriptions—are simply useful depictions of what appears on the actual, physical manuscripts. However, the high-quality images that accompany each semi-diplomatic transcription in EMMO will give users a good sense of the original, and comparing the two onscreen constitutes a learning experience of its own.

Text encoding

In addition to transcribing the text of manuscripts, EMMO will encode the transcriptions for proper digital representation online, using tags in XML that adhere to TEI P5 guidelines, thereby giving the digital transcriptions an appropriate and consistent look as well as streamlining them for quick computer searches and analysis. More advanced encoding to add glosses on the text or highlight items for debate may be done in later stages of EMMO or as part of specific research or learning initiatives in the future.

Staffing and structure

Initial funding for EMMO comes from a three-year grant by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS); the project will run from 2014 through early 2017 in its early phases. This broad venture will draw upon the expertise of staff members across several divisions at the Library, including personnel from Central Library, Digital Media and Publications, and Folger Institute.

Key staff at Folger Shakespeare Library involved in EMMO:

Dan DeSimone, Eric Weinmann Librarian (Director for EMMO Project)
Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts (Primary Investigator for EMMO Project)
Michael Poston, Database Applications Associate
Eric Johnson, Director of Digital Access
Kathleen Lynch, Executive Director, Folger Institute
Owen Williams, Assistant Director for Scholarly Programs, Folger Institute
Elyse Martin, Program Assistant for Scholarly Programs, Folger Institute
Julie Ainsworth, Head of Photography and Digital Imaging
Melanie Leung, Image Request Coordinator
Denny Henry, Photography and Digital Imaging Assistant
Renate Mesmer, J. Franklin Mowery Head of Conservation
Emily Wahl, Metadata Specialist

IMLS grant-funded, dedicated staff hired by Folger:

Paul Dingman, EMMO Project Manager
Sarah Powell, EMMO Project Paleographer

EMMO also has a highly-respected external advisory group whose guidance and assistance will be of immense help in achieving the project’s goals:

Julia Flanders, Brown University
Neil Fraistat, University of Maryland
Alan Galey, University of Toronto
James Ginther, St. Louis University
Ben Vershbow, New York Public Library
Peter Stallybrass, University of Pennsylvania
Alan Stewart, Columbia University
Kathryn James, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
Elizabeth O’Keefe, The Morgan Library and Museum

The online tools and scholarly programs of EMMO will serve as important resources for students, teachers, and researchers in a host of fields. By expanding the study of paleography and manuscripts, our understanding of the early modern period will deepen. Assumptions about the literary record will be challenged; new questions will be asked and new answers found.

Further Readings

National Archives - Paleography: reading old handwriting
Early Modern Handwriting: An Introduction by Elisabeth Leedham-Green
Early English Handwriting: 1500-1700
Manuscripts (disambiguation)
Manuscript transcription projects
Digitized manuscripts
Folger Paleography listserv
Scriptorium: Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts Online
List of online resources for early modern English paleography

The Collation EMMO
The Collation EMMO: transcribathon
The Collation EMMO: Advancing and Expanding
The Collation EMMO: A spoonful of Sugar
The Collation EMMO: Tagging manuscripts
The Collation EMMO: Fall round up 2015
The Collation EMMO: Announcing Shakespeare's World
The Collation EMMO: A monument more lasting than bronze