Early Modern Literary Studies
Reinventing Rare Books: The "Virtual Furness Shakespeare Library" at the University of Pennsylvania
Rebecca Bushnell
University of Pennsylvania

Bushnell, Rebecca. "Reinventing Rare Books: The 'Virtual Furness Shakespeare Library' at the University of Pennsylvania." Early Modern Literary Studies 5.3 / Special Issue 4 (January, 2000): 5.1-19 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/05-3/bushfurn.html>.


  1. The new historicists' reinvention of reading literary texts as part of social and political history has radically altered the landscape of the field. These Renaissance scholars have directed our attention to many long-neglected books and images, ranging from broadside ballads to conduct manuals, early maps to family portraits. In conjunction with this focus on texts as artifacts of the past, many have sought to strip away three hundred years of editing from early literary texts in order to construe them in their original printed forms. This expansion of English Renaissance studies and refocusing of the scholarly and literary eye on the old document, image, and printed book have redrawn the boundaries of the early modern period.

  2. The drive to read early modern books rather than modern editions also draws much of its energy from the "sociology of bibliography" and the new textual studies. In his influential essays on Bibliography and the Sociology of Texts, D.F. McKenzie argues persuasively that "the material forms of books, the non-verbal elements of the typographic notions within them, the very disposition of space itself, have an expressive function in conveying meaning"[1] -- and that we lose this meaning if we read only modern edited editions. Textual studies and bibliography have long been an essential part of scholarship on early modern literature, and the field has been shaped by important publishing efforts such as the English Experience Series, the Malone Society Editions, and the Scolar editions. After receding to the background in the age of New Criticism, now, in the wake of new historicism, textual studies have taken on a new significance by foregrounding the ways in which editing determines meaning. As Leah Marcus has written in Unediting the Renaissance, "to an extent that few of us recognize, our standard editions are shaped by nineteenth-century or even earlier assumptions and ideologies  . . . . 'Unediting the Renaissance' is proposed not as a permanent condition, but as an activity that all readers should practice mentally even as they make use of edited texts. It requires a temporary abandonment of modern editions in favor of Renaissance editions that have not gathered centuries of editorial accretion around them."[2] Perhaps the strongest example of the effect of such revisionary reading has been the growing acceptance of the quarto and folio texts of King Lear as alternative versions of the play.[3]

  3. This rethinking of the English Renaissance should not be confined to the scholar's study: it has the potential to revolutionize the teaching of Renaissance literature and culture at all levels. When a teacher uses unedited texts, original source materials, and the documents of theater history, students enjoy a more direct access to the cultural object. They have more freedom to draw their own maps of the culture, and to make their own decisions about interpretation. For example, they can judge the theatrical value of the differing quarto and folio stage directions of Hamlet, rather than having that decision made for them by editorial tradition.[4]

  4. When provided the proper context and tools for reading, far from feeling alienated and confused, students who have the opportunity to work directly with source texts, images, and documents feel that they have greater autonomy in reading.

  5. At the same time, for all its potential, this sea of change in English Renaissance studies has also posed obstacles for both research and teaching. These materials, dating from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, have been neglected for centuries and are hard to find. In the days when teachers and students all read and analyzed the same canonical poems and plays in cheap and easily available editions, few practical restrictions inhibited their work. Now, however, only scholars who have the good fortune, time, or funds to have access to major research libraries and rare book collections can pursue this study thoroughly. Further, using unedited texts and images creates problems for teachers: while students are often fascinated by these images and texts and respond to the idea that the old versions differ from modern ones, most undergraduates and high school students need a lot of help in construing an early modern text. You cannot simply put a facsimile of a Shakespearean quarto, with its strange typography and lack of annotations, in front of college sophomores and expect them to read and understand it. We must find new ways to make this new scholarship work, not just for a privileged few in research universities, but for scholars in all sorts of circumstances, and for college and high school teachers and students as well.

  6. Internet technology and the World Wide Web offer a powerful means for disseminating these "raw materials" of English Renaissance culture to a world of students and teachers who lack access to them. While, over the years, Renaissance scholars and editors have produced an admirable numbers of editions and facsimiles of early texts, these series and editions tend to be found only in major research libraries and are expensive to own. By making these materials available for free on the Web, we can reach teachers and students all over the world and show them new ways to understand and use these materials when they study Shakespeare, Milton, or any of the canonical texts of this vital moment of European history. In a unique collaboration between the Department of English and the Department of Special Collections in Van Pelt, a group at the University of Pennsylvania has created a site on the World Wide Web that presents facsimile texts and images from the Furness Shakespeare Library's vast holdings of early printed materials relating to Shakespeare, theater history, and the early modern period. With the support of a three-year grant from the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities, this group is now in the process of transforming this site into a teaching resource as well as an archive for scholars. This new project, called "The English Renaissance in Context: Teaching Shakespeare with the World Wide Web," will integrate into the Furness Shakespeare Library site the essential pedagogical elements that will help to make it accessible to a wider audience, adding the background texts, teaching exercises, and educational network that will make it work for students and teachers at many levels.

  7. At the heart of this project is a collection of materials for the study of English Renaissance culture drawn from the Special Collections Department (including the Furness Library) of the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania. H.H. Furness, one of the foremost early editors of Shakespeare, built an extensive collection of materials on Shakespeare, including almost all of the English-language editions of his plays, the first four folios, and many early quartos. The Library also has a large archive of promptbooks, biographies, prints, photographs, letters, scrapbooks (with reviews and news reports about Shakespearean performances and performers), and playbills for the study of early stage history. In addition, the Furness Library contains primary and secondary texts about the history of the Renaissance in Europe, and draws on the other rare books from the Short Title Catalogue available in Special Collections.[5]

  8. In 1996, the library staff and faculty from the English department began to talk about increasing the Furness Shakespeare Library's value as a research and teaching resource by expanding its accessibility. James Saeger, then a lecturer in the English Department (and now an assistant professor at Vassar College), suggested the idea of creating a "Virtual" Furness Library, which would make the Library's holding available on a web site. Saeger, Rebecca Bushnell (a professor of English), and Michael Ryan (the director of Special Collections at Van Pelt Library), collaborated in shaping the vision of that library. Supported by a internal grant from the Instructional Computing Development fund of Penn's School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) and the Van Pelt library administration, the Furness Library team (working with other Penn faculty and students) started to assemble an electronic archive of images and texts from the Furness collection, so that faculty and graduate students could link the Furness texts and images to their course home pages, ask students to consult the library from their homes or dorm room, or can use the library in classrooms equipped with computer projection hardware. Since receiving the NEH grant, the library has been able to expand greatly the number of texts mounted on the site.

  9. At present, the Virtual Furness Library is available to the public as an archive of early modern texts, mostly those related to the study of Shakespeare. This Web site is located in the University Library's server, as part of the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Texts and Images (SCETI). The archive's centerpiece is a facsimile of the Furness Shakespeare Library's copy of the First Folio (a version of this folio is also being prepared as a searchable, encoded text). One set of texts contains clusters of texts related to King Lear, Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Richard III. Each cluster has a link to the folio version of the play, a quarto version (if available), eighteenth and nineteenth century revisions of the play, a travesty, a promptbook, and relevant sources and contextual material (not every set has all these materials). For example, the Romeo and Juliet cluster contains a facsimile of Quarto 5 (1637), Thomas Otway's Tragedy of Caius Marius (1686), Garrick's revision of Romeo and Juliet (1753), Richard Gurney's 1812 travesty of the play, and Edwin Forrest's promptbook based on Kemble's edition. The section on King Lear allows the reader to compare facsimile texts of the 1623 Folio and 1619 Quarto versions of King Lear, as well as Nahum Tate's The History of King Lear (1681) and Alexander Pope's edition (1723). It includes links to relevant sections of the 1587 Holinshed's Chronicles, Samuel Harsnett's A Declaration of egregious popish Impostures (1603), and A Mirrour for Magistrates (1610). The user can also look at a wide range of images of performances of King Lear from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

  10. The other category of texts presents significant books from the collection, including selections from Foxe's Actes and Monuments (1610), Stephen Gosson's Playes Confuted in Five Actions (1615), parts of Helkiah Crooke's anatomy book entitled Mikrokosmographia (1615), John Heywood's Fair Maid of the West Parts 1 and 2 (1631), the 1640 edition of Shakespeare's Poems, Erasmus' Praise of Folly (1549), Samuel Daniel's Civil Warres (1609) and History of England (1621), and John Donne's Poems (1633). (Additional works in preparation at present include Ovid, Livy, Plutarch and Montaigne.) These text serve as a stand-alone archive, but they are often also linked to the Shakespearean texts.

  11. The Virtual Furness Library is also designed to serve experiments in teaching with the Internet. With the support of the Pew Foundation, in 1995 Rebecca Bushnell and James Saeger developed a new site for a Renaissance course that incorporates electronic technology. Rebecca Bushnell first taught this course, English 30, in Fall 1995, and adapted it into a second version, English 330, in Spring 1997. In these courses, students performed exercises in on-line research, including exercises using the on-line Oxford English Dictionary and the on-line MLA Bibliography, as well as an evaluation of Internet texts and research data-bases. The students were also asked to write comments on the on-line portraits, maps, and facsimile variant texts as part of their work outside of class (posting their written work on the class list server). For example, when they were reading Ben Jonson's poem "To Penshurst," they examined the web site's pictures of Penshurst and Hatfield House as well as the maps of country estates and then posted to the class their thoughts on the architectural differences between Penshurst and Hatfield, and how those differences might be reflected in Jonson's poems. Computer projectors also allowed the class to work on the materials together in class time.

  12. The force of these two undertakings, both the Virtual Furness Library and the experiments in teaching with technology, have combined in the NEH project, which Michael Ryan and Rebecca Bushnell are co-directing in 1998-2001. The project "The English Renaissance in Context" has a unique double purpose: to expand the existing Virtual Furness site significantly to create a site with both greater depth, breadth, and networking; and to build an extensive teaching element into the site, so that it will be accessible and productive for all levels of teachers and students who can use the Web (as well as non-academic users). In its finished state, the site should be useful to a wide range of users -- the scholar, the teacher, the student, and the educated amateur. The needs of each of these users will contribute to the shape and function of the site.

  13. Scholars for example, need access to the widest possible range of early modern and later materials. Researchers do not want choices made for them (that is, they would prefer whole book scans rather than selections). They will profit from the use of searchable texts as well as facsimile materials. They do not need many background materials but they do need bibliographic information, and they would be interested in multiple editions of works.

  14. Teachers (including university, college, and high-school teachers), however, benefit from extensive supplementary information, including biographies, cultural context, and information on the history of the book (especially for the less commonly known or taught texts for which there are no modern editions). They can use more directed information and "clustered" materials useful for the teaching of Shakespeare in particular. Such clusters might focus on a theme, a character, or a scene from one of the plays. They may also want teaching guides (including sample questions and teaching activities and exercises). Finally, they can make use of a "bulletin board" for the sharing of teaching ideas (both successes and failures) for using the site.

  15. The final group of users includes students and educated amateurs. These users may in some cases be guided into the site by teachers, and thus, they share in the kind of needs outlined for teachers. At the same time, they can be lured independently into the site by "demo" exercises, and entertaining activities. Once brought into the site, they need a clear map to guide them through the possibilities of what the site can offer (e.g., just reading an old book on their own, or trying out one of the models designed for teaching.)

  16. To be useful to such different readers, the site needs to offer different kinds of access or paths to the texts and information. It is essential, however, that these paths intersect at key points, so one can stray or purposively deviate from an easier trail to a more difficult one (or from a more defined to a less defined one). While providing guidance when it is needed, the site should preserve the intellectual freedom that reading old books entails, because of the absence of mediation. Each of these users, of course, require two different kinds of links: links between the different levels of the site (the scholar/teacher/student), and links to other Internet resources.

  17. At present, the project team is still experimenting with different formats for the pedagogical structure of the site. One of our goals is to offer the teaching as a "real-time" experience that is both directed and interactive. If they choose the teaching exercises, teachers and students will be led through a set of comparative texts and offered questions, but not answers. For example, in a sequence on the poetry of Romeo and Juliet, after first juxtaposing the balcony scene's love poetry with Shakespeare's sonnets of comparison ( "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" and "My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun"), the reader will move to David Garrick's revision of the play, in which he removed many of the words that he found too vulgar and cut much of the rhyming text and puns. With Garrick's text of the balcony scene juxtaposed with a matching frame for text of Q5, the reader can compare these two versions of the scene and identify where Garrick made changes. Where did he remove or clean up a rhyme? Where has he made word substitutions? What kind of lines has he eliminated? From there, the reader can travel to look at Richard Gurney's travesty, which is written in relentless rhyme. All of these exercises not only chart the changes in tragic taste, but also allow the reader to see the impact of diction and rhythm on tragic style and tone.

  18. Conceived in these terms, as far as we know, this project differs from similar efforts providing texts and images on the World Wide Web, either currently available or in preparation. Many people are producing Shakespeare hypertext CD-ROMs and Shakespeare Web sites, as well as on-line sources for other Renaissance materials. Most of these materials, however, are presented as transcribed texts, rather than in facsimile form, and thus they lack the typographical and visual features of the early modern text and image (an example of a non-Renaissance site that does work similar to ours with digitized images of original documents is Jerome McGann's archive on "The Complete Writing and Pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti"). Second, most of these sites reproduce books or texts in isolation, and they are not designed by scholars and teachers for the teaching of the text. (The Shakespeare Interactive Archive at MIT, which is designed for the multi-media teaching of Shakespeare, is a fine example of a project created for teaching with photo facsimiles of Shakespeare texts, while it is more focused on teaching Shakespeare in performance than our project, and it is not currently available for Internet access; see Donaldson.) Most importantly, the pedagogical function described, taken in conjunction with its archival nature, represents a new opportunity to share the experience of working with a library of old books. The site will, of course, be designed to be interactive, giving those who consult the site the opportunity to ask questions and to make comments, as well as to add their own experiences and teaching ideas.

  19. "The English Renaissance in Context: Teaching Shakespeare with the World Wide Web" is profoundly democratic in spirit, because the site is intended to be accessible and attractive for Web users of all kinds, who are seeking to understand Shakespeare and other Renaissance writers and the complexity of early modern English culture. It represents an extraordinary opportunity to create a link between university teachers and scholars and a much wider community of readers and students, sharing ideas, questions and expertise. In 1998-99, the project team met with a workshop of West Philadelphia high school teachers who will be instrumental in helping to test and develop the site. Once the teaching element of the site is on-line, these efforts can be expanded far beyond the boundaries of our region. We all have much to learn from each other in this great experiment.

Works Cited


1.  See McKenzie (8). For other influential studies of the "sociology of bibliography," see Chartier's The Cultural Uses of Print in Early Modern France, McGann's A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism, and his The Textual Condition.

2.  See Marcus, Unediting the Renaissance (5). For other examples of the "new textual studies," see De Grazia's Shakespeare Verbatim, Tribble's Margins and Marginality, and De Grazia and Stallybrass' "The Materiality of the Shakespearian Text."

3.  For a thorough discussion of the implications of treating this play as two texts, see Taylor and Warren's The Division of the Kingdom: Shakespeare's Two Version of "King Lear."  Warren has discussed the pedagogic implications of this approach to the text in "Teaching with A Proper Text."  The recent Norton edition of the works of Shakespeare prints both texts.

4.  For an example of such an approach see Urkowitz's "Good News about 'Bad' Quartos."  See also Marcus' "Teaching Textual Variation: Hamlet and King Lear."

5.  For comments on the library, see Ziegler and, also, Gisson.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

1999-, R.G. Siemens and Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).

(RB, RGS, 14 September 1999)