About In the Spotlight

Announcement: We're moving! Help us test In the Spotlight on Zooniverse

For project news and progress updates, follow @LibCrowds on twitter, or sign up to the British Library's occasional Crowdsourcing newsletter. Got questions? You can email digitalresearch@bl.uk, ask on the project forum or on twitter.

The British Library holds a significant collection of playbills dating from the 1730s to the 1950s. These playbills list entertainments at theatres, fairs, pleasure gardens and other such venues. Small 'handbills' were circulated amongst theatre-goers enjoying the performance while larger 'great bills' were posted on walls and windows. The Library's collection of approximately 234,000 playbills has been bound into over 1000 volumes, some of which have been digitised - and now we need your help to bring them back into the spotlight.

These single-sheet items are usually ephemeral (fires always needed lighting!) and the Library's collection only exists thanks to zealous collectors who saved a large number of sheets. These playbills offer a wealth of historical detail with thousands of personal names of actors, playwrights, composers, and theatre managers. Less well-known and even forgotten plays are preserved alongside popular performances and much-loved dramas. Some of these plays may not have been independently recorded in printed form, while some songs may not have been committed to any printed score - transcribers may well discover previously lost plays or songs!

The rich details captured on each historical page - from forgotten personal names to popular songs and plays to lost moments in theatrical history - aren't yet available to search online. You can help unlock this important collection - every contribution, large or small, makes a difference.

The screenshots show how varied the text on playbills can be - it's easy enough for people to spot the title of upcoming plays on the page, but it's not the kind of task we can automate (yet). You'll notice the playbills used different typefaces, sizes and weights with apparent abandon, which makes it tricky for a computer to work out what's a title and what's not. That's why we need your help!

Screenshot of sample playbills

Please note that some language in this collection may be culturally insensitive or offensive to some viewers. It is presented as it exists in the original document for the benefit of research. The material reflects the culture and context in which it was created and not the views of the British Library.

About the Project

We've launchedIn the Spotlight to make these digitised playbills more findable online, and to give people a chance to see past entertainments as represented in this collection. You can help transcribe titles, names and locations to make the playbills easier to find.

Detail from a playbill

Initially we've chosen to focus on regional theatre around the UK and Ireland. The project begins with volumes of playbills from theatres in Plymouth, Margate, Bristol, Hull, and Edinburgh. Volumes of playbills from London theatres will be added as the project progresses. Further volumes of regional playbills will be added too, representing theatre from Newcastle, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Liverpool, Bath, Manchester, Nottingham, Wolverhampton, and Dublin among others.

Dive in and play a role.

You can help by posting feedback on the project forum, emailing us digitalresearch@bl.uk or tweeting @LibCrowds.

Your contributions

Your efforts will help uncover the level of detail important to researchers: titles; names of actors, dramatis personae; dates of performance, and the details of songs performed. Who knows what researchers will discover when the collection is more easily searchable?

Key information from individual playbills will be uploaded to the Library's main catalogue to permanently enhance the way these playbills can be found and reviewed. Immerse yourself in the popular entertainment of the past while contributing to future research - get started today!


The project was initiated by Dr. Mia Ridge when Alex Mendes, original developer of the LibCrowds Convert-a-card project, joined the Library's Digital Scholarship team as a research software engineer. We are grateful to Christian Algar from the Library's Printed Heritage department for curatorial input. Our thanks also go to the Printed Heritage, Metadata Services, BL Labs, and Universal Viewer project teams.

Last, but absolutely not least - we are incredibly grateful to every single volunteer who's help spread the word or contributed to the project, whether once or tens of thousands of times. Thank you all!


In the Spotlight is part of the LibCrowds crowdsourcing platform, which aims to make the collections of the British Library easier to find by asking the public to help enhance information about collection items.

On the backend, In the Spotlight uses an instance of PyBossa, an open-source framework for the creation of crowdsourcing projects. On the frontend, a custom theme has been developed using Vue.js, a JavaScript framework for building user interfaces. Images are loaded via IIIF manifests generated from an internal repository for use by the Library's Universal Viewer. A Vue.js component called LibCrowds Viewer was written to present the microtasks. As this component is entirely decoupled from In the Spotlight it could be used for additional crowdsourcing projects.

Contributions are serialised according to the Web Annotations Data Model. Following an analysis and quality control process the data will be searchable via the IIIF Content Search API, as well as being transformed into MARC-formatted metadata fields and ingested into the British Library's Explore catalogue.

The theme, all project templates and further plugins are Open Source and available via the LibCrowds GitHub page.


This project is run by the British Library's Digital Scholarship and Printed Heritage teams. For enquiries please contact digitalresearch@bl.uk or @LibCrowds.

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Passers-by read playbills outside a theatre in Portsmouth

Image from A collection of portraits of celebrated actors and actresses, views of theatres and playbills, ([1750?-1821?])