My interest in manuscript research grew from my love of books as objects. Specifically, I love old books with marginalia — those notes, doodles and scribbles written in books by their original owners. The marginalia has an aura of mystery that appeals to me, and that can also be an essential tool for scholars. Handwritten notes contemporary to the book’s publication contain invaluable insight into the interpretation of the literature at that time. At one point, universities preferred “clean” copies of books, but increasingly, marginalia is recognized as a vast intellectual resource.
I first got involved in manuscript research through the Penn Manuscript Collective, a student group that meets once a month. I wanted to gain some firsthand experience and was amazed to learn that Penn lets undergrads access nearly all of the resources in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. All I needed to do was pick a project. I met with my Shakespeare professor Zachary Lesser, and he generously helped me find something to work with — a promptbook of Hamlet printed in 1879 with notes by J. R. Pitman.
I didn’t know much about the promptbook to start out. The identity of J. R. Pitman remained a mystery, one of the reasons I chose this project. My initial work with the promptbook yielded few clues. I went through Mr. Pitman’s notes line by line, but learning how to read his handwriting was a struggle. Was that an R or a K? What did “green foots” mean? Who would write “p’s” like that? In my first few visits, I only got through about two pages of text, but reading Mr. Pitman’s writing was a bit like learning a language — once I got the basics down, my rate of learning accelerated. When I was stumped, I could use the rest of the notes for clues — finding an unintelligible word or letter in another context helped me decode the text. But names and dates, the clues I had most hoped to find, remained absent.