This summer, undergraduates Lydia Zoells and Kate Needham contributed to a vital database for the study of Renaissance drama.
You most likely have read at least one of William Shakespeare’s plays, but can you say the same about the works of Richard Brome, John Ford, or Thomas Middleton? These dramatists lived and wrote in Shakespeare’s time, but unlike the famous poet, their works have largely been forgotten.
This summer, seniors Lydia Zoells and Kate Needham undertook a research project aimed at preserving the literary legacies of these playwrights and other contemporaries of Shakespeare. Along with a fellow researcher at Northwestern University, Needham and Zoells spent much of their summer visiting libraries from Chicago, Illinois, to Oxford, England, and delving into a wide range of rare, first-edition plays. Their careful work contributed to an ongoing effort to create a database of literary works from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Martin Mueller, professor emeritus of English and classics from Northwestern, sparked Zoells and Needham’s initial interest in the project. During a campus visit to Washington University sponsored by the Humanities Digital Workshop, Mueller described his work on the database.
The project “puts together a massive number of these plays, many of which are not available in bookstores or in a modern edited edition,” Needham explains. Significantly, the transcriptions are intricately tagged and coded, enabling computers to recognize large-scale patterns that would otherwise be undetectable to human scholars.
Mueller’s database has been in the works for years, but the collection still needs a significant amount of polishing. Because the database was originally compiled using images from microfilm, thousands of small errors riddle the transcriptions. In some cases, the copies of the plays that were originally photographed and then microfilmed had inking problems, leading to gaps in the text. In other cases, pages are missing because of the carelessness of bookbinders.
"The best way for those problems to be solved is for people like Lydia and me to go to a rare books library, pull the original book off the shelf, and turn to that page and figure out what the missing word or letter or punctuation mark actually is,” Needham says.
With the encouragement of Joseph Loewenstein, director of the Humanities Digital Workshop and the Interdisciplinary Project in the Humanities, and the support of the Office of Undergraduate Research, Needham and Zoells took on the challenge.
Over the course of their summer work, the small team corrected some 12,000 errors. Most of the meticulous process focused on individual phrases, but occasionally the researchers allowed themselves to get caught up in the excitement of working with such rare material.
“Most of the time we're scanning through and finding random sentences, but I remember finding passages in Robert Greene’s Selimus that were so intense and moving - I'd stop doing my transcriptions and keep reading,” Needham says.
Along the way, they also found materials that will be useful for their own senior theses. Zoells, an English major with a minor in German, is interested in scripted on-stage audiences. Needham, a double major in English and classics, is focusing on twins and doubles in Renaissance theater.
In addition to being of enormous benefit to future readers and scholars, Zoells and Needham’s work also built scaffolding that will help even more undergraduates get involved in important humanities research.
“We created an Excel document that listed every book with errors and every library in the United States where we could find it. We weren't able to look at all the books we wanted to, but in creating this document we made something that could be used by other people,” Needham explains.
“In theory, and we're hoping to push this pretty soon, any undergraduate who is interested in this work and is near a library like Harvard, University of Texas-Austin, or Illinois Urbana-Champaign can open this library finder, and it will spit out a number of plays and errors that need to be addressed. We’re hoping to crowd-source contributions,” she adds.
These types of opportunities are especially exciting for students in the humanities, who may not be aware that it’s possible to work with archival materials in this way.
“This research isn't the type of thing they train you for in English classes,” Zoells says. “We got to learn how these libraries work and how to handle the rare books. It's very special that we were offered this opportunity through Professor Loewenstein, and we're hoping that we can extend that to more undergraduates.”