Ever wonder what it looked like inside the old concert halls of London? Curious to learn about the English folk tradition of mummering, where people dress up in disguise and perform in plays in their neighborhoods?
Soon readers all over the world will be able to dive in and learn more once nearly 1,000 books about theater history from the 18th and 19th centuries are online. The collection was recently donated by the Hamilton Public Library (HPL) in Ontario to the Internet Archive for digitization.
“Through our partnership, we are just so appreciative that the Internet Archive is able to make the collection available to the world 24/7,” said Lisa Weaver, director of collections and program development at HPL.
The rich array of books was given to HPL in 1984 by a local university drama professor who was interested in the cultural history of the theater. The collection includes books on the technical details of theater, such as lighting and staging, different actors and playwrights in the theatre community, as well as architecture of various types of British and American theaters.
Because some of the donated books were written by the donor, the availability of the entire collection allows interested researchers to follow the evolution of an author’s perspective on a subject. “The ability to trace the history of thought and ideas is a powerful tool,” said Ryan Johnston, archivist of local history and archives at HPL. “This helps achieve one of the original promises of the Internet, namely as a vehicle for democratizing thought—making knowledge as broadly accessible as possible by removing many of the geographical and physical barriers.”
The Canadian library was doing a standard periodic review of its holdings, when it was determined the collection of American and British material did not fit within the public library’s mandate, which focuses primarily on works from the Hamilton area. The library contacted several university libraries and theater archives to find a new home for the collection, but ultimately decided the Internet Archive would provide access to the broadest audience.
“In the stewardship of collections, it’s a fine balance between what you can accept and what you can realistically store,” Johnston said. For HPL, it made more sense to donate to the Internet Archive, which could take a physical copy of a book, digitize it, and put it online for interested readers no matter their location. “This way we are doing both good collections management and also increasing accessibility,” he said.
HPL donated more than 70 boxes of books on two pallets, which were transported by the Internet Archive to its physical archive facilities. After the books are digitized, the print copies will be put in long-term storage out of circulation, and the digital books will be made available through controlled digital lending. The books cover a wide variety of topics including theater construction, history of traveling troupes, theater lighting in the age of gas, the art of scenic design and other aspects of the evolution of the theater.
Johnston said he expects the books will appeal to anyone with an interest in the theater, including historians, researchers and the general public. Although there was a time when physically holding everything was the way to ensure long term preservation, Johnston encourages others to look at the opportunity of partnering with the Internet Archive to digitize materials.
“It’s important that any institution—whether that’s a library, archive or museum—do a reappraisal of their collection and take a hard look at their options,” Johnston said. “If anything, the pandemic has taught me that people are really looking for material to be as easily accessible as possible. The more memory institutions can do that, the better.”