THE "FUTURE" OF EARLY modern dramatic manuscript studies is the present, as I learned at an excellent conference on "The Future of Manuscripts in a Switched-on World" held at the University of London in March 2002 and co-sponsored by its Centre for Paleography. The conference organizer told us that she had had to close enrolment at over 125 people and could have enrolled 75 more because "Manuscripts are hot!" I've been waiting fifteen years to hear those magical words. Perhaps I would no longer have to defend myself to theorists, "history of the book" scholars (who largely ignore the role of manuscripts in textual transmission), and other Shakespearean colleagues for spending so much time poring over dramatic manuscripts at the Folger, Huntington, Bodleian, and British Libraries (as well as unusual places like Dulwich College, Cardiff Central Library, and Alnwick Castle).
As the conference continued, I was thrilled to discover that manuscripts were not "hot" in themselves but as objects to be digitized. Speaker after speaker offered samples from Web-based or CD-ROM projects that had digitized medieval and early modern manuscripts, producing beautifully clear digital photographs of leaves in which whole lines and single letters could be highlighted and enlarged. Even passages that had been deleted could be made legible (a process that should revolutionize the study of The Book of Sir Thomas More, which was gummed up with tissue paper by an early British Library conservator). With digitization, even the slightest variation in ink can be scrutinized, letters--whether gothic, secretary, or italic--can be overlaid to compare handwriting, and even watermarks can be discerned. More importantly, we were told that digitization was drawing more and more scholars into the study of manuscripts, and once introduced, they became "hooked" and wanted to see the originals as well as other related materials in manuscript form.
Ten years ago Jerome McGann showed me his spectacular Dante Gabriel Rossetti electronic archive (http://jefferson.village.virginia .edu:2020) as well as other digitization projects at the University of Virginia's Electronic Text Center (http://etext.lib.virginia.edu). Ever since, whenever he gave me the latest update of his work and that of the Center I sighed and wondered how mere mortals (and employees, like me, of universities or colleges that cannot fund or sponsor such expensive projects) could ever initiate an electronic archive. But here at "The Future of Manuscripts" conference I learned that a number of international agencies, including the UK's Arts and Humanities Digitisation Service (www.ahds.ac.uk), part of the Arts and Humanities Research Board (www.ahrb.ac.uk), and The Leverhulme Trust (www.leverhulme.org.uk), were willing to consider and possibly help fund digitization projects. I felt as if my own world had switched on. I also found a roomful of people volunteering advice and support for my project to digitize Dulwich College's Philip Henslowe/Edward Alleyn manuscript archive (including Henslowe's "Diary," his correspondence with dramatists and actors, and his theater contracts).
Why should scholars, as well as grant-funding agencies, invest time, money and effort in the field of manuscript study, which appears to be so arcane, so sparsely populated, and so often results in "vanity projects" (as one non-manuscript scholar once informed me)? Manuscripts are "hot," for scholars now want to work on them, either because "researching the archives" has suddenly become a major rather than a minor focus or because original documents are now being fashionably appropriated as "material texts" or "cultural artifacts" (a subject that G. Thomas Tanselle has cogently explored in Literature and Artefacts). More importantly, new computer technology is culturally revolutionizing the study of literary manuscripts: we are now making a humanistic discipline truly scientific and thereby claiming some validation (and being awarded grant money) from the larger academic community for full-time study in the liberal art of literary study. …