The Shelley-Godwin Archive, a free online resource featuring the digitized manuscripts of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft, will include tools designed to encourage collaborative humanities research, similar to collaborative public projects in the sciences.
“What we want to do is create, in the archives, a platform for participatory curation and encoding of our manuscripts,” said Neil Fraistat, Project Director from the University of Maryland’s Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH). “One of the biggest problems that I can see in universities is that most undergraduates—including most humanities undergraduates—don’t even know that there is such a thing as humanities research.”
As a partnership between the New York Public Library, MITH, and Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, with contributions from the Huntington Library, the British Library, and the Houghton Library, the Shelley-Godwin archive for the first time brings together “the widely dispersed handwritten legacy of this uniquely gifted family of writers” in an online platform, the project’s website explains. The participating institutions are believed to possess over 90 percent of all known relevant manuscripts attributed to the four writers.
Collaborative online science projects are becoming more common, Fraistat said, citing Galaxy Zoo as one example. There, the public has the opportunity to explore a giant dataset from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, allowing astronomers to crowdsource the classification of millions of galaxies. The Shelley-Godwin Archive hopes to cultivate a similar spirit of collaboration, not only to bring new insights to the manuscripts, but also to raise awareness of humanities research more generally.
“There’s a huge population of what’s being called ‘citizen scientists,’” Fraistat explained. “And there are transcription platforms, and ways for them to interact with data—to curate the data. The question is, how can we involve the public in a way that helps to create citizen humanists?… We built this on an infrastructure that is meant to go far beyond simple access principles.”
Ranging from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Romantic era poetry to Mary Wollstonecraft’s influential A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and from William Godwin’s writings on anarchism to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, these manuscripts could prove to be a successful starting point for such efforts, since they will appeal to varied constituencies. The manuscripts will make it easier to explore how the family influenced one another’s work, by examining the notes that Percy Shelley wrote in early copies of Frankenstein, for example. Through collaboration, “citizen humanists” can also help transcribe pages in the manuscripts that are currently available only as digital images of the handwritten pages, or even develop more authoritative versions of many of Percy Shelley’s poems.
Approximately one quarter of Percy Shelley’s poetic canon was published posthumously, Fraistat said, and many of these poems were incomplete. After his death, Mary Shelley did compile and prepare for publication an authoritative collection of posthumous poems, but her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley, suppressed its publication. Mary Shelley had to wait until 1839—seventeen years after Percy’s death—to publish her first edition of his poetry. In the meantime, pirated versions of many of these poems had been circulating for almost two decades.
“She didn’t have enough copies of the first edition to mark them up for the printer, so instead, she depended on the texts of two different pirates as her base text. While she caught many errors that were in the pirated text, she also didn’t catch many. So the first authoritative edition of Percy Shelley’s poetry is riddled with problems.”
Complicating matters further, many people, including Mary, began pulling lines from his unfinished poems and sharing them as poetic fragments. In something like an 18th century version of a mashup or remix, creative editors began mixing and matching these fragments and publishing them as new works.
“Poems were being created that would have been news to Percy Shelley,” said Fraistat. “There’s even one egregious example of a sequence of three different Shelley editors who created a Shelley poem called ‘The Ocean Rolls Between Us’ from a letter that he wrote.”
For more than 100 years, it was almost impossible for interested parties to catch mistakes or fabrications in these published poems, because the manuscripts were not available to the public, and Shelley’s descendants kept tight rein on access. The manuscripts were ultimately donated to the Bodleian Library after World War II. Facsimiles of the manuscripts were prohibitively expensive for most libraries. As a free resource, the Shelley-Godwin Archive will finally allow a broad audience the opportunity to explore the manuscripts, along with concepts such as authorial intent, drafting and revision, and third-party editing.
“It’s really important for people to get back to the primary evidence of the notebooks themselves,” said Fraistat. “To see what’s actually in there. To think through for themselves what’s been done with these texts over history, and study also the composition process through which these poems went.”
The archive is currently available to the public in beta release, which enables the public to explore all of the known manuscripts of Frankenstein. The many manuscripts that have been transcribed are fully searchable, with filters to limit searches by source, work, author, and type of revision. Many pages allow a user to view a digitized copy of the manuscript itself alongside an easily readable transcription. Radio buttons allow users to limit their view to text by Mary Shelley or notes by Percy Shelley. Frankenstein was a particularly appropriate choice for the archive’s beta launch on October 31, but new content and functions, beginning with annotation features and drafts of Prometheus Unbound, will continue to be added until the online archive is complete.