The Bodleian’s original copy of the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays is the subject of a campaign to stabilize the volume through a conservation program,digitize the volume, and publish it freely online. This “Sprint for Shakespeare” echoes an earlier effort, over a century ago, to ensure that the book would be housed in the library after a long period of absence from the library.
This copy of the first folio arrived in the Bodleian shortly after its publication in 1623 and was bound in Oxford. Then, in later decades, it left the library, though the date of its de-accession is not clear.
It reappeared only in 1905 when an undergraduate, G.M.R. Turbutt, brought into the library a copy of the first folio that was owned by his family. The preservation of the original binding demonstrated that this was the Bodleian’s original copy.
The story that this book’s own journey tells is recounted by Emma Smith (English Faculty, University of Oxford) in a lecture recorded [here].
The Bodleian Library at different times in its history has responded to a process which had begun as far back as the eighteenth century, in which copies of early books became prized by collectors and by scholars for their embodiment of physical evidence of the history of printing and book-ownership.
In her lecture Dr Smith outlines the work by Bodleian staff in the early twentieth century to purchase the volume in the face of competition from the American collector, Henry Clay Folger, determined to secure as many copies of the First Folio as possible for his library. The multiple copies of the First Folio that Folger did successfully acquire enabled the researches of Charlton Hinman in the 1940s, who collated 55 copies (of the over 200 surviving) to complete his study, The Printing and Proof-reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (1963).
Information about this copy of the First Folio during its first residence in the Bodleian comes from Library Records, the library’s archive of its own history. Library Records e.528, the Bodleian Library Binders Book from 1621- 1624, contains the record of the Bodleian First Folio being sent to the binder Wildgoose in Oxford, on its arrival at the Bodleian. Library Records c.1259 – c.1262 and Library Records b.862 detail the research and publications of Falconer Madan, the sub-librarian in 1905, on the volume’s history, and the efforts by the librarian, E.W.B. Nicholson, to raise funds for the purchase of the volume in 1906.
Pictures on the “Sprint for Shakespeare” blog show why the volume has not been considered suitable for handling in recent years, and why conservation has been required simply to get it into shape for digital photography.