Lessons For Librarians Of London’s Folio Fiasco

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).

In all these cases, the arguments against the sales were more or less the same. They include: the legal and moral right of the vendors to sell the material; the issue of consultation with interested parties; the intrinsic importance of the books that are being sold and their significance within historic collections; and the question of how any funds resulting from the sale will be used. Strangely enough, in several of these cases the vendors of the books do not seem to have thought through the implications of what they were proposing to do or to have had detailed policies about disposing of books or about how best to use the money their sale might bring. The reputational damage that can come from selling what has been entrusted to their care seems obvious to most people, but apparently passes by some librarians and trustees of libraries. Who would give rare books to a library-or money with which to buy them-if they knew that the library was likely to sell them within a few years? The more opposition there is to a sale, especially one at auction, the less enthusiasm buyers have to put their money into acquiring books that come with a tainted or unhappy provenance. Books ripped untimely from their institutional homes are not as attractive as those that have long histories of being bought and sold by private collectors. Consequently, they tend to go for lower prices than they are expected to fetch. The funds libraries have raised from such sales have not always been spent successfully and, in at least one case, were not in the end spent at all or not for many years.

An appeal to the Charity Commissioners can provide a way round some of the historic terms of bequests, although “permanently” in the case of the Sterling bequest seems pretty clear to most people. But the other question of the right of temporary custodians to sell what was intended always to be part of a collection or an institution is more complicated. Librarians, trustees and even the Charity Commissioners come and go and are subject to occasional rushes of blood to the head; institutions have longer and more permanent existences. They exist to preserve material and to serve the academic and the larger community; it might be thought that those who are most interested professionally in that material and perhaps know most about it should be asked for their views concerning the prospect of it being sold. But this rarely happens; such consultations are often of a highly selective kind and the results fudged.

What is perhaps strangest about these sorts of sales from libraries is that librarians and those involved in the decision to dispose of material often know very little about the material that they are proposing to sell. At the time of the Rylands sale, I vividly remember C.B. (Brian) Cox (1928-2008),  Professor of English at Manchester University and Pro-Vice Chancellor, closely involved in the sale, saying how interesting it was to learn about the significance of the “duplicates” that the library was selling, even as the auctioneer’s hammer was descending on the collection. Senate House Libraries also believed that the four Shakespeare Folios were “duplicates” or “essentially duplicates” of books they already owned. Despite a century and more of the painstaking investigation of books printed before 1800 on the hand-press, it is surprising to have to explain to professional librarians and others that there is no such thing as a “duplicate” of this kind. Bibliographical investigation, on both sides of the Atlantic, has shown that as books passed through the press corrections, large and small, were made to their texts by printers and proof-readers. Rather than abandon the uncorrected pages or formes (one side of a sheet), they were bound promiscuously together so that, in theory, no two copies of the same edition are identical. Bibliographers and editors collate multiple examples of what most people would (wrongly) think of as identical copies to find these press variants. At the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C., Charlton Hinman collated 50 or so copies of the First Folio; the results of his research were at first glance disappointing, for the press variants he discovered were not as interesting or important as those found in, say, the first printing of King Lear. However, his eye-wrenching work on a machine of his own devising, which superimposed images of pages from two copies and flashed a light through them, allowed him eventually to recover the printing history of the most important witness to Shakespeare’s plays and so to advance knowledge of how they were put into print.

Furthermore, each copy of an early printed book-or for that matter a more modern one-has its own distinctive history. Book historians are interested in who owned it, who read it, who wrote in it, to what uses it was put, how it was bought and sold. They will also want to pay particular attention to its binding, whether it is of the smart morocco kind, like the ones on the Sterling Folios, or cheaper and more every-day ones. Nor do copies of books simply exist in a vacuum: they relate to other items collected by the same person and to larger institutional holdings. The Dr Williams First Folio had been in the Library since at least 1729-like a front tooth knocked out of someone’s mouth, it is not there any more. Books from the hand-press period are not “duplicates” and the more we learn about them, the more their unique individuality becomes apparent. In the last few years, scholars have been paying increased attention to what the paper used in the production of early printed books can reveal: it turns out to be a great deal. Investigation of the paper that can be found in the First Folio is still in its early stages and is likely to reveal that stocks appear in different configurations in different copies. Were the Sterling First Folio to be sold, it would be most likely to be bought by an individual collector or a corporate investor in the US or the Far East (hence the proposed tours to those areas) and removed from sight; one more copy for investigation would be removed from public access in a capital city. The research potential and significance of these books is, therefore, enormous for our knowledge of the 17th-century book trade and for understanding the history of Shakespeare’s texts. Strangely enough, although we know a great deal about the First Folio, research into its three successors is quite underdeveloped and there is still much to be found out about them.

In all of this, libraries and universities do not always know what’s going to be useful and essential to scholarship in the future. One of the most regrettable decisions in the Bodleian Library’s history was to sell its copy of the First Folio, deposited by the printer on its publication in 1623 in accordance with an agreement with the Stationers’ Company. When the Third Folio reached the library in about 1664, it seems that the Bodleian decided the First Folio was superfluous and sold it with other items for £24. At the turn of the 20th century, the library bought it back from a private owner for the then huge sum of £3,000. Predicting what will be of value and importance in the future is particularly difficult and it is easy to get this badly wrong. Who would have thought that such ephemeral items as broadside ballads, almanacs, popular pamphlets, comics, shop and manufacturers’ catalogues, pulp fiction or science fiction were worth preserving or would one day become the objects of serious study? 

The same goes for buying new, contemporary material. Libraries, especially in the US, have long sought to build relationships with authors to acquire material while they are still writing. Much slightly older material has already found a good home elsewhere and there is little point in thinking that even a couple of poetical manuscripts, a handful of letters and a few first editions will bring scholars from around the world to work in a research library. They want the sort of breadth and depth that the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin or Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, or the Brotherton Library at Leeds University, or the Bodleian and British Libraries themselves have to offer. Building a new collection in any area, but especially in modern literature, is a difficult business and requires, knowledge and taste, a good deal of research, and close links with academics and those in the antiquarian trade who tend to know a lot about the field and the market. Private collectors often sell books to buy other books; enthusiasms and interests change; several less-loved volumes may be sacrificed to acquire the most desired item; a less interesting or damaged copy may be traded in to acquire a better one. These are private transactions and personal matters that satisfy an individual’s whims. Institutional libraries have a heavier responsibility and cannot and should not act in such ways.

Although the fact that books printed before 1800 (and many thereafter) are not duplicates is well established, still comes the cry from librarians and those who should know better that digital images are adequate replacements for the originals or sufficient for most purposes. We have been here before with microfilms and microfiches and the limitations of such surrogates are still the same. They are only as good as the people or companies that make them: they may miss pages out, photograph them in the wrong order, trim margins containing all-important material, doctor images in one way or another, and even reproduce the wrong book. Moreover in the case of printed books, only one copy of the book tends to be reproduced: it is good to have the singularity of that copy recognised, but what of all the rest? Most digital images fail to do justice to specific details of binding, ownership and annotation. They cannot, except in rare cases, give any indication of the nature of the paper on which the book has been printed. Anyone who has worked extensively with a digital- image book will be all too aware of the limitations of the technology. Digital images of books are extraordinarily useful and can save a great deal of time, but they are not intended to and can never be substitutes for the original. They complement but can never replace direct firsthand examination of actual copies.

The sale of the Sterling Folios failed because people who care about Shakespeare, old books more generally, libraries and universities and more specifically Senate House and the University of London, mounted a swift and powerful campaign against the proposal. They used social media and the extraordinary power of the internet to point out the unsatisfactory and unconsidered way in which the University Library and its trustees had gone about realising what was supposed to be no more than a proposal. There are lessons to be learnt here both for those who are thinking about selling books from institutional libraries in the future and for those who seek to oppose such sales.

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