NEH grant will expand popular Shakespeare Web site

Fragile, ancient texts, traditionally guarded and sequestered by the Special Collections librarians on the sixth floor of Van Pelt, suddenly are accessible to not just serious scholars at Penn but also to teachers, high school students, anyone with access to an Internet-connected computer anywhere in the world.

Those same librarians who guarded "the dragon's egg," in the words of Dan Traister, curator, research services, Department of Special Collections, have found a way to broadcast their treasure to "as wide an audience as possible. You can look at stuff very few people have had access to. You can see it in Yechebbetsville, Wyo.; you can see it in Philadelphia, Pa."

When he says "see," he means it literally. He's talking about the Furness Shakespeare Library site on the World Wide Web, a site that shows scanned images of important, rare Shakespeare texts housed here at Penn, texts that scholars from around the world have sought permission to examine.

"This stuff longs to be used," Traister said.

"This stuff" includes the second quarto and first folio editions of "King Lear" along with sources like appropriate sections of "Holinshed's Chronicles" (1577), theatrical images, and revisions. It also includes "Hamlet" editions and sources as well as other Renaissance texts.

And over the next three years, it will grow dramatically, thanks to a $180,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to expand the site and increase its usefulness to high school and college teachers who otherwise would have no access to original source material.

The germ for the site began about five years ago, said Michael Ryan, director of Special Collections. "It grew out of fairly close collaboration with the Shakespeare mafia in the English Department. It is the premiere department in the country, if not in the world, for Renaissance specialists. They also had an interest in new technology.

"One member, Rebecca Bushnell, already had begun to develop a Shakespeare site for one of her classes. So we got together to do something a little more ambitious."

With the help of then-graduate student James Saeger (now a professor at Vassar College), who had computer sophistication, and funding from the library, from the provost and another small grant, Bushnell and Ryan created the site.

The NEH grant to expand the site was a joint proposal. "Michael Ryan and I are co-conspirators and co-investigators," said Bushnell, now associate dean for arts and letters as well as a professor of English. "My role in the grant project is the teaching side," she said. "The library will handle the technical side."

The project will involve "all sorts of fabulous people," Bushnell said. She named Renaissance scholar Steven Orgel from Stanford, Anthony Grafton from Princeton, and Peter Donaldson, an expert on Shakespeare and new technology, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as high school teachers.

"The site will be full of scans of original source materials," Ryan said."It will allow teachers to work with images of woodcuts, scenes, images of actors. There may even be multimedia where appropriate."

The Furness Shakespeare Library site is one of several sites on CETI, a library site that contains virtual facsimiles of original source materials.The Shakespeare page is particularly well used, judging by the daily e-mail queries. Traister gets notes from high school students hoping he'll write their papers for them and from college students looking for how to begin their research.

"None of us realized that simply putting up a Web site would attract this kind of attention," he said.

Originally published on April 30, 1998