I have been part of the team that has been working to create Shakespeare Documented, which launched on January 20, 2016. In the last few weeks before launch, one of my main duties became the creation the thumbnail image for many of the nearly 500 items that are showcased on the website.
What are thumbnails? In the context of a website, they are small images that represent larger images—sort of a preview, if you will, of what’s on the full image. They are used (on Shakespeare Documented, anyway) when you are browsing lists of items. Our goal for these thumbnails was to give visitors a sense of what the item might look like at a glance (and to make the pages more visually interesting).
But how did we decide what part of the larger image to focus on for the thumbnail? We quickly came up with a set of priorities for our thumbnails. First, if possible, we would use the Shakespeare name (which most often referred to William, but some instances referred to his father John, or other members of his family).
If the Shakespeare name was not explicitly mentioned in an item, then our next priority was to either use the name of a Shakespeare play or poem, or another recognizable proper name (often Shakespeare’s friends or family or business associates).
Lastly, if there weren’t any particularly noteworthy proper names in the item (or if the item was too badly damaged to get a clear image—more on that in a bit), we simply tried to make the thumbnail image be representative of the visual look of the item.
The process of making these thumbnails was fascinating for me, as it was at once both a survey and a close reading of the Shakespeare Documented items. While I already had a general sense of the items included on the site, going through the images for each item, scouring them for a specific reference (that might or might not be there) engendered a level of familiarity—intimacy, even—that I was not anticipating.
I jokingly said to my colleagues “I never thought spotting Shakespeare’s name in manuscript at fifty paces would be in my skill set!” But, like all jokes, there’s an element of truth to it. Shakespeare’s name is wonderfully distinctive, even in the most challenging handwriting, with the “butcher-hook H,” the K (always funky), and the medial long S.
Through this process I built up skills that I didn’t even know were possible, let alone might be useful. For example, I came across (and learned to read) a wide variety of scribal hands, and even learned to recognize some of them by which abbreviations they were using. I gained an unexpected understanding of the structure of 16th- and 17th-century legal documents of all kinds (hint: if the name you’re looking for isn’t in the first line, try the third clause or the very end of the document). I learned more about daily life in mid 16th-century Stratford-upon-Avon that I ever thought I would. (Did you know that one was not allowed to let one’s swans or ducks roam freely in the street?)
These discoveries were not limited to the manuscript documents, either. While the images of printed items obviously didn’t pose the same visual challenges as the manuscript items, I became fascinated by elements of page layout and typography that I had never considered before.
For example, the ratio of the rectangle we used for the thumbnail images (231 x 175 pixels, for those curious) is very nearly a 4/3 ratio; and this ratio seems to have been in play on many title pages: in most cases, I was able to capture the bulk of the text on the title page quite neatly.
Venus and Adonis is probably the most-mentioned piece of writing on the website, with twelve print editions and numerous other references and allusions. As I created the thumbnails for each print edition, I discovered a host of variations (some small, some not so small) in the presentation of Shakespeare’s name at the end of the dedication. Seeing them all together—well, seeing ten of the twelve, anyway; the dedication pages for the third and tenth editions are sadly no longer with us—makes an intriguing visual:
Another unexpected aspect of the project that became clear as I went through item after item was the amount—and variety—of damage that 16th- and 17th-century print and manuscript items can sustain. I feel like there’s potentially a fascinating overview/case study fodder for an introductory conservation/book history class buried in this site. Examples range from faded ink, to burn marks and torn pages, to several letters that were almost completely washed out by water damage in World War II.
The last big surprise that this process of making thumbnails held for me did not occur until after the fact. We timed the launch of Shakespeare Documented to coincide with the opening of the corresponding physical exhibition here at the Folger, Shakespeare, life of an icon. All of the items that are in the physical exhibition are also in the website, so I was already quite familiar with them. That, of course, didn’t stop me from bouncing giddily at seeing them in person; indeed, the work that I’d done with their digital surrogates made me all the more appreciative of the physical artifacts. But I found I was still able to be surprised by what I saw. The un-sent letter from Richard Quiney to Shakespeare was so much physically smaller than I expected. With digital facsimiles, you lose your sense of proportion; on the screen, a huge deed of purchase appears the same size as the 5 inch by 6 inch Quiney letter. And even having seen those dimensions given for the letter many times, I was still struck by how small it was. Handwriting that I had spent so much time trying to decipher on the website was suddenly easily readable when I saw the document in person. I was able to tell at a glance what page some of the items were opened to.
I’m sure that everyone who visits Shakespeare Documented will take away something different from the site. For me, it has been learning how viewing documents in microcosm can change your whole perspective. I invite all of our readers to visit and see what unexpected discoveries you can make. If you’d like, share them in the comments here.