The Penn Playbill Project

composite of historical British playbills




Project Summary


This summer I participated in the Penn Playbill Project, thanks to funding from a PURM grant. The Penn Playbill Project, headed by Dr. Michael Gamer and Dr. Scott Enderle, aims to examine tens of thousands of playbills from Great Britain in order to draw conclusions about the dynamics of British theater. The playbills are drawn from both the University of Pennsylvania’s collection as well as the digital playbill collection of the British Library. The majority of the playbills come from the British Library collection, which has nearly 100,000 documents spanning from the late 1700’s to the mid-1800’s. The Penn Playbill Project has been worked on for several years, and this particular summer we made progress in several different areas. Our primary directives were to retrieve, organize, and run OCR (optical character recognition) on the playbills from the British Library database, and to input tagged data into a database created by a team last year. The database was designed primarily by Dr. Enderle, and it allows the team to input very specific information about playbills into a json format. This summer my primary duties, shared with my partner Anastasia Hutnick, were to manage a corpus of the British Library playbills (which involved writing code to download, split, and merge pdf’s) and to input playbill information into the database. Towards the end of the summer, I also assisted Dr. Gamer in transcribing musical scores from melodramas of the period using music notation software.


Throughout my work on this project, I have learned a great deal. Coming into this experience, I had very little knowledge of romantic period drama, and Dr. Gamer provided a plethora of knowledge on the subject. Throughout the summer, we read and discussed over 10 plays, melodramas, and pantomimes from the period. In addition to learning about British theater during the romantic period, I learned basic to intermediate skills in Python coding, how to examine historical documents, how to manage a corpus, and much about the general research process. I found this summer very intellectually stimulating, and I believe it has contributed much to my educational experience. I have branched out and explored an area that I had no experience in. While my plan as of now is to study economics, I am glad I was provided the opportunity to work in a different field doing academic research. I believe I developed important skills that will be useful in my future endeavors. I am very grateful for this experience, and owe much to PURM, Dr. Scott Enderle, and Dr. Michael Gamer.