British Library crowdsourcing project to unlock a treasure trove of 18th and 19th century theatre playbills

Playbill, Dover, 1842.
  • Website invites members of the public to help transcribe, enhance and discuss 100,000 historic playbills
  • Collection includes playbills advertising entertainments in Plymouth, Margate, Hull, Dublin, Edinburgh and Bristol

The British Library has launched In the Spotlight, an innovative crowdsourcing project focusing on its historical collections of printed playbills, from the late 18th century to the end of the 19th century. The website enables people to transcribe information about the playbills to improve the catalogue records for each item and make this historical collection more accessible to everyone.

Take part in the project at

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.  Volunteers’ contributions will enhance the rudimentary entries for volumes of playbills that currently list only approximate dates and the names or locations of theatres. This will make it easier to access the nearly 100,000 digitised playbills for performances across Britain from the late 18th to late 19th centuries currently available online through Explore the British Library. The data recorded is also automatically available for anyone to download, visualise or use in their own research.


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.


Digital Curator Dr Mia Ridge said, “Crowdsourcing projects like this are an opportunity for people to enhance historical collections while getting a sense of everyday life in the past. 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.”


Christian Algar concluded “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 launches with playbills from theatres in Margate, Plymouth, Bristol, Hull, Edinburgh, Dublin and more volumes will be added to as the first volumes are completed.


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