Writing Assignment #2

Archive Development: Shakespeare Literary Archive

Shakespeare Documented (hyperlink above) is an online literary archive that aggregates manuscripts of all of Shakespeare’s work and personal history. The Folger Shakespeare Library put together the project with the help of other partnering libraries. According to project, the archive “is the largest and most authoritative collection of primary-source materials documenting the life of William Shakespeare.”

In regard to the literary work, the archive falls in a vein similar to the Walt Whitman Archive. Ed Folsom (2003) noted how Walt Whitman’s work, specifically Leaves of Grass, does not fit solely into the genre of poetry; instead, he argues that the “database may well be epic’s new genre.” The Shakespeare archive similarly compiles a database of literary work without sorting such unique work into rigid categories. Typically, people think of Shakespeare as falling into one of three categories: tragedies, comedies and histories. But in reality, those are the best ways historians and literary scholars could categorize Shakespeare’s work. In this database, there is no attempt to define differences in his work (the do note the difference between his plays and poetry, but only because he actually did write poetry as well). With the user free to explore all of the work, …

As a digital archive, Shakespeare Documented is successful as well. Kate Theimer (2012) worries that in using archive to describe the work of digital humanists “there is the potential for a loss of understanding and appreciation of the historical context that archives play as custodians of materials in this context”. However, this is not the case for the Shakespeare archive. Theimer is concerned with the connotations of “authority, rarity and specialness” when using archives to describe digital works that might not exhibit those properties. But typically when encountering any of Shakespeare’s works, the authenticity is lacking due to translations and other modern manipulation. But with this database, users can access all of the original, primary documents. It might actually help increase appreciation due its uniqueness.

Users can fairly easily navigate the exhibition by navigating different links. However, they eventually lead you to a page full of documents that can be clicked on. The issue is that under many of the categories, there are more than six pages of documents and it only sorts them chronologically. For example, if you wanted to learn about Shakespeare’s family, the archive takes you to a document page where there are 14 pages of documents (10 per page). So if a user does not know specifically what they are looking for, this could be overwhelming.

As a whole, the content of the Shakespeare Documented archive is impressive. I do think the creators should do more to increase the ease of navigating through the hundreds of available documents. But by all other metrics, the archive is a success.


– Brett Mele