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Invaluable: The title page and frontispiece of a copy of The Fourth Folio (1685) 

Towards the end of August, I received a message from Christopher Pressler, Director of Senate House Libraries, University of London, asking me whether I would be willing to support a plan to sell four of the university's 11 Shakespeare Folios. The four Folios-the first of 1623, in which 18 plays were printed for the first time, the second of 1632 which saw John Milton's first published poem, the third of 1664 which ascribed seven further plays to the canon, and the fourth of 1685-were given to the university by Sir Louis Sterling, the New York-born industrialist who was managing director of EMI Records. Sterling gave his collection to Senate House in 1956 with the explicit intention that they should be "permanently housed in the University Library". 

The Folios are a magnificent set, uniformly bound in blue calf in the 1830s. The university intended to sell them through Bonhams and, despite a statement that there would be "a public consultation on this proposal", the books were already at the auction house. A tour of four American cities-New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco-and Hong Kong during September and October had been arranged and a date for the sale-November 12-chosen. The idea was that the sale would provide the university, in its own inconsistent words, with a capital sum of "between £3m and £5m" or "£3.5m to £4m" which would be invested, the interest to be used to buy literary manuscripts of the 20th and 21st centuries, with the aim of attracting more researchers to work on contemporary authors.

I was surprised to be approached in this way since on a number of occasions I had written articles in the Times Literary Supplement arguing against such sales. In my reply to Mr Pressler's invitation, I said that "I shall do all that I can-publicly and privately-to prevent any such sale" and circulated my letter to him as widely as I could. It was soon taken up by the bibliographical community, social media groups and then newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. The (London) Bibliographical Society did much to draw attention to the folly of the sale and started an online petition; book historians made much use of their lists to spread word of the proposal; and the Antiquarian Booksellers Association came out strongly against it. Sterling's closest surviving relatives declared their opposition to it. Just over a week later, the university announced that the sale had been called off. 

It was altogether a sad business, one from which the university and the library have emerged badly, with questions left hanging in the air about their reputation and their future. There have been many other such campaigns against the sales of historic libraries and items from them; why did this one raise such strong feelings and why did it succeed? Most recently there has been controversy about the Law Society's decision to sell the Mendham Collection of 15th and 16th-century English Bibles and controversial literature, bequeathed  by Joseph Mendham (1769-1856) and, since 1984, kept at the University of Kent at a cost to the society of about £10,000 a year. Opposition to the sale failed and the books were sold at Sotheby's. Of course, it is easier to animate people about the sale of anything associated with Shakespeare (the 450th anniversary of his birth will be marked in 2014) than it is to engage them with the preservation of a 19th-century collection of pre-Reformation books. Even so, similar protests against the sales of First Folios by Oriel College, Oxford, and by Dr Williams's Library (just around the corner from Senate House) both failed to stop them. There were equally unsuccessful campaigns against the sale of rare 15th and 16th-century continental printed books from the John Rylands Library in 1988 and, a decade or so later, of runs of historic newspapers from the British Library-a shameful event that helped inspire Nicolson Baker's Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001).

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Peter M Thornber
November 11th, 2013
10:11 PM
An excellent article which shews how vigilant and tenacious we need to be in defence of our written and printed heritage. Academics, of all people, should know - and do - better.

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