Frankenstein's Manuscript Draws Its First Breath Online

New York Public Library

The frontispiece of the 1831 edition of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," an engraving by Theodor von Holst.
October 30, 2013

On Halloween night, a mob of scholars and readers will descend on the New York Public Library, in Midtown Manhattan, in pursuit of a nightmare. Their quarry: Frankenstein's monster, dreamed up by Mary Shelley on the shores of Lake Geneva during the cold, dank summer of 1816, almost 200 years ago.

Shelley brought to life the story of Victor Frankenstein and his creature in notebooks that passed back and forth between her and her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who made some changes and additions. Now held by the Bodleian Library, at the University of Oxford, the notebooks are essential reading for anyone who wants to know more about the birth of Frankenstein, but for decades they have been very hard to see.

On October 31, in a ceremony at the New York library, publicly available digital editions of the Frankenstein notebooks will go online at last, marking the official debut of the Shelley-Godwin Archive.

The archive is the offspring of a partnership among the Bodleian, the New York Public Library, and the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, or MITH, located at the University of Maryland at College Park. Like Victor Frankenstein, the organizers have a grand ambition. They want to stitch together elements from different collections—especially the rich holdings of the Bodleian and the New York Public—and bring to life a major new digital resource, not just for scholars but for anyone interested in Mary and Percy Shelley or in Mary's parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.

The Bodleian and the New York library's Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle together hold about 90 percent of the important archival material, according to the institutions. The British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Huntington Library, and the Houghton Library at Harvard University also own significant Shelley-Godwin documents that may eventually be included in the archive as well.

"We're bringing those distributed manuscripts together and putting them online for everyone," says Neil Fraistat, a professor of English at the University of Maryland, where he directs MITH. He and Elizabeth C. Denlinger, curator of the Pforzheimer Collection, have been leading the development of the Shelley-Godwin Archive with the help of a $300,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Body of Work

They decided to put the Frankenstein notebooks online first because the story has such a grip on the popular imagination and because they had excellent scholarly editions to build on. Charles E. Robinson, a retired professor of English at the University of Delaware, published a well-regarded facsimile edition in 1996, but it had a print run of only a few hundred copies, "and it was fantastically expensive," Ms. Denlinger says. "So not only individuals couldn't afford it, a lot of small libraries couldn't afford it."

In 2008, after much careful study of the original notebooks, Mr. Robinson published an edition of Frankenstein in which he was able to distinguish words and passages in Mary's handwriting from those in Percy's. (Just how big a role Percy played in Mary's creation was long the subject of scholarly debate.) That work and his earlier facsimile edition form the backbone of what will be available through the Shelley-Godwin Archive; a team of graduate students and scholars at MITH checked and retranscribed everything. Mr. Robinson will be on hand at the New York library to talk about his work, the evolution of close textual scholarship and the technologies that enable it, and how a reader can use the online edition.

When the site rises to life on Thursday, "you'll be able to experience Frankenstein, all of the known drafts, all of the known fair copy, and you'll be able to see it several different ways," Mr. Fraistat says. "You'll be able to go through the pages of the notebooks, one by one," as Mary and Percy worked on them, or order the sections in narrative sequence, as if reading through the novel.

Readers will be able to separate out Mary's contributions from Percy's, down to the level of specific words. "Let's say you're interested in the word 'monster,'" Mr. Fraistat says. "You can search and find every instance of the word 'monster' in the drafts and fair copy," along with every instance where that word was added or struck out by one Shelley or the other. "You can get some really interesting analysis going," he says.

"It's wonderful to have the transcriptions" online, Mr. Robinson says, although he notes that some useful elements may be lost in the move. For instance, in his 1996 edition he was able to capture the "fairly exact positioning" of any change that either Shelley made in a line or a margin; that has proved hard to do in the online version. "It's a trade-off," he says, "but I think the benefits far outweigh" that loss.

Mr. Fraistat emphasizes that the Shelley-Godwin Archive will be in an experimental phase for some time. He does not anticipate that the site will experience the kind of spectacular technical snafus that have beset the rollout of the federal health-care reform, but "there's no way it will work perfectly" on every device or browser, he says. "There's plenty of places where things could go wrong."

A Summons to Citizen Humanists

For now, readers will be asked to report technical problems (or textual errors, if they spot them) via email. Down the road, though, the organizers hope to develop the site into something far more robust and participatory, recruiting users to flag errors, transcribe manuscripts, and so on. Beginning with the Frankenstein notebooks, texts in the archive will be color-coded to signal how much work has already been done on them, according to Mr. Fraistat. Green will indicate that a manuscript is "fully curated," transcribed, and encoded; yellow will indicate that some work has been done on that particular text, but more remains; and red will mean "you're just looking at a page" of raw manuscript.

Mr. Fraistat's team at MITH built the Shelley-Godwin Archive using the Shared Canvas linked-data model, created by Stanford University, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Open Annotation Collaboration. It "allows you to take any single image, like a page image," and add annotations and layers to it, Mr. Fraistat says. The next step is to finish building an expanded technological framework, called Skylark, to make possible the kind of participatory experience the archive's organizers would like to create. The MITH group has applied for another grant to support the development of Skylark, but Mr. Fraistat says they're committed to making it happen with or without that money. If they do get the grant, he says, they hope to have a Skylark pilot up and running a year from January. They'll make the code openly available through GitHub so that other project developers can use it too.

With or without a grant for Skylark, the Shelley-Godwin Archive will be years in the making. The next manuscript to go online will probably be Percy Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, according to Mr. Fraistat, but the organizers haven't set a rollout date for that yet. Fans of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft will have to wait longer still to see any of their manuscripts—how long isn't yet clear.

Mr. Fraistat sees the archive as part of a much larger project: to engage the public in the work of the humanities. There are plenty of citizen scientists eager to pitch in on science-research projects like Galaxy Zoo, Mr. Fraistat says, but "there are very few citizen humanists." He'd like to see the Shelley-Godwin Archive develop from an access point into what he calls a "work site," where all kinds of people—students and general readers as well as trained scholars—will be able to work with the raw stuff of literature.

"I hope this is the future of literary archives," Mr. Fraistat says, "a kind of collaboration between people in the academy, people in the classroom, and people in the general public who are interested in the material."

Correction (10/30/2013, 5:11 p.m.): This article originally misidentified one of the organizations participating in the archive project. It is the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, not the Maryland Institute for the Humanities. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.