Sylvia Morris, Finding Needles in Haystacks: Shakespeare and the Internet

September 12, 2011 in Essay

This post has been contributed under a Creative Commons 3.0 SA BY licence by Sylvia Morris, the former head of the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, and RSC Librarian. Her blog, filled with fascinating information and commentary on Shakespeare in the past and present, can be found at

It’s tempting to think that whatever you want to find out about nowadays, it’s only a click away. But with any Google search throwing up hundreds of thousands of hits, is it really that simple? I recently heard a radio discussion where it was suggested we are all “disempowered by the overload of information”, and in the academic world, it’s the same. Historian Daniel J. Cohen has said: “It is now quite clear that historians will have to grapple with abundance, not scarcity. Several million books have been digitized … and … we are confronted with a new digital …resource of almost unimaginable size”.

Cohen’s concern is over the digitization of books and manuscripts until recently only available by examining the original item, but this isn’t the only kind of project in the digital revolution. One great resource to be launched online later this year is the Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700, which offers high quality descriptions, but no images. The book holdings of major libraries worldwide are now searchable online via COPAC, but it would be a mistake to think that job’s done. Although the scope is widening, only a fraction of the world’s libraries are on COPAC, and most libraries and archives contain uncatalogued materials, and have too few staff to catalogue.

Many resources for Shakespeare study are easy to find. Among texts, Folios and Quartos have been scanned, and the Internet Shakespeare Editions is producing fully-edited modern editions for the internet. Books of Shakespeare criticism have been digitized as part of mass digitization projects of texts, manuscripts and illustrations like the Google Books project or the Internet Archive. Among institutional websites the prize goes to the Folger Shakespeare Library which includes not only the Library’s catalogues but an image database, videos, and pages of outstanding articles. Modern stage production images for the Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare’s Globe are posted on their sites. It’s not a dedicated Shakespeare resource, but the ubiquitous Google search can pick up content from almost anywhere so effectively that a recent survey named Google search engines as 4 of the top 20 websites worldwide. While undeniably useful, this ease can encourage a “smash and grab” mentality which effectively decontextualises the images, video or written content.

My own experience with digital projects relates largely to the development of an online database of information about RSC productions, linking the data to catalogue records in the RSC’s Archives. This launched in 2004 as the RSC Performance Database. I was simultaneously involved in two image projects, Royal Holloway College’s Designing Shakespeare and the RSC’s Pictures and Exhibitions. The potential benefits of linking these projects together were obvious, but with each planned and funded in isolation there was no opportunity for cooperative working.

I’m going to focus on a single but very dynamic area of digital initiatives, Shakespeare on video. If you’re a student or teacher studying Shakespeare, YouTube is an obvious place to start. A search for “Shakespeare” here results in thousands of hits all by itself, without even considering the material on other video websites.

Faced with this kind of result, sites have sprung up to help filter these resources. MIT’s Global Shakespeares project “provides global, regional, and national portals to Shakespeare productions within a federated structure”, a real treasure trove containing great content. Bardfilm is a personal blog selecting and commenting on Shakespeare-related films, a fascinating collection put together by someone with a passion for the subject, though not always easy to search. Bardbox is Luke McKernan’s project, and as you’d expect from the British Library’s Moving Image curator, the site addresses issues of selection and cataloguing while also being a personal choice. Only original videos are chosen, from sites like YouTube and Vimeo. None of these sites aim to be comprehensive, and the BUFVC’s International Database of Shakespeare on Film, Television and Radio is a fantastic resource which aims to fill that gap by being an “authoritative online database of Shakespeare-related content in film, television, radio and video recordings,… international in scope and hold[ing] over 7,000 records dating from the 1890s to the present day.”

While all the above offer access to information and videos themselves, there are still problems. Items are not scanned or made searchable in a consistent way, and the mass of resources that aren’t digitised are ignored. This presents a real issue with currency. The RSC’s Pictures and Exhibitions and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s PeoplePlay UK were both projects containing thousands of images, but operating on defunct platforms they have been taken down. The RSC website currently contains valuable video interviews and production clips, but will these go the same way?

What is the future for Shakespeare in the digial world? Content is certain to grow. The question “How do I find it?” can probably be solved, but only if further cataloguing is done. The other question “How do I sort out the good stuff from the rest?” is also complicated, and too large for any small group of people to answer.

One option might be to look at the sort of solutions offered by organisations like WordPress, where help is provided by the wiki-based WordPress Codex community forum. Only twenty administrators work for WordPress, but there are 115,000 self-selected members of the forum, many of whom provide content. Is a Shakespeare crowdsourcing project like this the way forward? If so, who’s going to get it started?

2 responses to “Sylvia Morris, Finding Needles in Haystacks: Shakespeare and the Internet”

  1. Your last paragraph about crowdsourcing makes an interesting point: the need for a kernel of experts in these projects, around which a broader range of volunteers can then accrue. I often wonder, though, whether there is something of a catch-22 situation here: experts will – quite reasonably – want payment and recognition for their work, but those projects that are most attractive to volunteers are those free from paywalls, copyright and other restrictions used to generate revenue. Even WordPress, I note, now contains many opportunities for users to pay a little for a little extra…

  2. […] Having already read the majority of the contributions, I can say now that the series fulfils its goal of offering what the Bard would call a “multitudinous” range of approaches to the topic of Shakespeare and the Internet; subjects range from why Polonius would appreciate hypertext to the problems and opportunities of online abundance. Please feel free to make use of the comments section at the bottom of each article, and to carry on in this space the points for debate that each article raises. The contributions will appear in the following order: Monday 12th September: Sylvia Morris, Finding Needles in Haystacks: Shakespeare and the Internet […]

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