Theatre: Go on, be a luvvie

British Library seeks public’s help to catalogue historic playbills 

The British Library is looking to enlist the help of the public to complete its catalogue of historic theatre playbills through a new crowdsourcing venture, writes Mark Cantrell

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Lots of fun, Dover 1842. Courtesy of the British Library

IF advertisements for theatrical productions are your thing, then the British Library is opening up a treasure trove of historical documents for you to browse – all it asks is a little favour in return.

The library is looking for a little help in cataloguing its collection of printed playbills from the late 18th Century to the end of the 19th Century. To achieve this, the organisation is looking to pull in members of the public through a new crowdsourcing project called In the Spotlight.

The scheme, via its website, enables people to transcribe information about the playbills. That way, the British Library says it can improve its catalogue records for each item, and “make this historical collection more accessible to everyone”.

In the Spotlight offers a way to immerse yourself into a world where theatre entertainments were the biggest show in town,” said Christian Algar, curator of printed heritage collections at the British Library.

“Millions of playbills – posters on shop windows, or circulars passed about by hand – were printed to advertise an evening’s programme of entertainment at nearby theatres. Just like today’s ads, these historic playbills are visually engaging, even captivating. For modern readers, they’re full of fun and useful information about how Britons were entertained in the past.”

In the Spotlight allows crowdsourcing volunteers to mark up and transcribe key details like play titles, specific performance dates, genres and (in the near future) names of actors. The details that people help capture will be uploaded to the British Library’s catalogue and online image viewer.

Lots of fun, Dover 1842. Courtesy of the British Library

At present the details recorded about the playbills are “rudimentary”, the library explains, listing only the approximate dates, and names or locations of the theatres. Volunteers’ contributions will enhance the entries by providing greater detail. This is expected to make it easier to access the collection, which consists of nearly 100,000 digitised playbills for performances across Britain from the late 18th to late 19th centuries.

The data recorded is also automatically available for anyone to download, visualise or use in their own research.

It’s not just about cataloguing the playbills; users can also ‘talk shop’. The site offers a discussion board where people can interact and draw attention to points of interest, raise questions, make noteworthy observations, share images and talk with other people who have contributed to the project.

“Crowdsourcing projects like this are an opportunity for people to enhance historical collections while getting a sense of everyday life in the past,” said digital curator, Dr Mia Ridge. “There are hundreds of stories to uncover in these collections, and we’re excited to see what people find as they look through the playbills.

“Designers might be interested in the fonts or illustrations, while theatre fans might enjoy the descriptions of scenery. We also hope In the Spotlight will inspire new research questions and new uses of the data by academics, community historians and the public alike.”

Algar added: “The playbills featured in this resource are an entertainment in themselves and are richly visual. Exploring In the Spotlight will allow people to see the development of the playbill from the plain typeset formula of the late 18th century playbill where the title of the play is the focus, through to the ‘Golden Age’ of the early Victorian playbill where the wider theatrical experience begins to top the bill, with illustrations and fancy typefaces dramatically announcing lavish sets, descriptions of the action on stage and even the price of currant buns on sale.”

The project launched with playbills from theatres in Margate, Plymouth, Bristol, Hull, Edinburgh, and Dublin. More volumes will be added as the first volumes are completed.

Take part in the project at


The Iron Chest, Theatre Royal, Margate, 1796. Courtesy of the British Library






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