The One That Got Away… Again!

October 11, 2015 at 1:03 pm (Asides) (, , , , , )

Back to the story of the First Folio that got away from Henry Folger. This story and many others are told by Andrea Mays in her book The Millionaire and the Bard. We left the Bodleian Library’s newly-rediscovered First Folio in the jubilant hands of the excellent Libarian Falconer Madan… the man with the worst poker face ever. Ever! He’s cheering far and wide about the fantastic lineage he’s unearthed for this long lost volume, jacking up the price tag, right out of the Bodleian’s ability to buy it.

Enter Henry Folger. Well, of course he wants it. He was buying up First Folios left and right with his Standard Oil money. He wanted all of them and for sure he wanted interesting copies like this, more than anything! This was his life’s obsession, buying these things. So what’s his Achille’s heel? He’s a cheapskate at heart. He doesn’t part easily with a pound sterling, so he tells his London bookbuyer to bid as low as possible.

Really, Henry? What the hell? You had the money and this was a once in a lifetime thing. In this case, the London bookbuyer also did Henry a disservice because they believed the Bodleian couldn’t raise anywhere near the funds that Henry was offering (about $15k) and they told Henry not to bother bidding higher. This was a grave tactical error.

The Bodleian went public asking for donations to save the precious book from leaving England, and the Turbutt family gave them extra time to raise it. After all, one of the Turbutt kids was a student at Oxford, and well, it would look bad. The (actual, not sub!) Bodleian librarian E.W.B. Nicholson tried to shame donations out of alumni, but still, they were short.

Folger wasn’t richer than the wealthy English families… why didn’t any of these old money aristocrats come to the Bodleian’s rescue? Who knows? They were busy living their Downton Abbey lives, hunting foxes and buying pretty clothes… no one was hunting First Folios but Folger.

Still, small donations came in and the issue of Britain’s cultural heritage crossing the Atlantic got more and more press. Even ugly cartoons… awful caricatures of Henry pursuing the Bodleian First Folio with sacks of money. Henry Folger hated press and here it was, all against his greedy, grabbing, American self. How awful! He just coveted the book. Why did this bother anyone?

Last minute donations (oddly including one from Turbutt himself?) saved the Bodleian First Folio from heading to Folger’s storage crates in America. Oh dear. Henry didn’t take losing well. He told the London bookbuyer Sotheran to offer Turbutt $25k (nearly double his initial offering, which was already unheard of crazy money at the time).

But it was too late, the Bodleian had bagged the deal. As Mays says, Henry lost it without having his best offer on the table. More weirdly, and a little window into Folger’s bizarre obsession, he asked Sotheran to offer the Bodleian librarian £1,500 to let Henry have “ownership” of the book during his lifetime. If need be, even letting the book remain in England. As Mays puts it, “In other words, Folger would not even demand that the folio be sent to him in America. He would be satisfied with the knowledge that he ‘owned’ the book in the abstract without ever having it in his possession. This was a psychological portrait of the mind of an obsessive collector.”

Um, ya think? Can you just picture all these staid London graybeards smoking their pipes in their dark-paneled and fine leather-filled club just laughing their heads off about the weird American while they drink their whiskey? His requests went nowhere and Henry finally gave up his pursuit. That book remains in Oxford and you can peruse it digitally from your desktop.

Get Andrea Mays’ book… there are so many great stories about Henry Folger and his Foliomania. It’s an amazing glimpse of his eccentricity, but you’ll also learn about Standard Oil (the source of his wealth), learn about his wife Emily who was his full partner in Foliomania, and gain a lot of insight into the importance of the First Folio.

The book includes a photo of the Folger Library’s 82 First Folios shelved in its underground vault. An amazing photo! One third of the known copies in the world, all sitting there on shelves in Washington DC. It leaves me to wonder which First Folio I had a close encounter with a few years ago. Was it Folger First Folio No. 1 — the precious Vincent Folio? The One That Did NOT Get Away? I doubt they bring that amazing book out for a bunch of library students to gawk at, but whichever it was, it was in beautiful condition and amazing to see up close.

I appreciate the Folger Library so much more now having read Andrea’s book. As she says, “Henry Folger was a brilliant, ethical American businessman. He was an unapologetic industrialist. And the Folger Shakespeare Library is a triumph of American capitalism and philanthropy.” When you’re in DC, be sure to stop by the Folger… it’s a stone’s throw from the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. You’ll get to see one of their First Folios behind glass, and even that is an incredible treat.

first folioBut even more exciting, the Folger is taking the First Folio on tour throughout the United States in 2016. The book will be displayed in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. Check out the tour dates… I hope you can have a close encounter, too!

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The One That Got Away

October 6, 2015 at 11:19 pm (Asides) (, , , )

“First Folio front matter” by William Shakespeare, from the Bodleian Library’s First Folio, Arch. G c.7., (Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).
Created thanks to the generosity of the Sprint for Shakespeare campaign donors  CC BY 3.0 Unported

This is the story of The One That Got Away from Henry Folger, collector extraordinaire of Shakespeare’s First Folios. The story is told with flair by Andrea Mays in her lovely book The Millionaire and the Bard. This is the story of Gladwyn Turbutt, Falconer Madan, Strickland Gibson, William Wildgoose, and Sir Thomas Bodley… aren’t these fantastic names?

In 1905, Turbutt brings a book into the Bodleian Library at Oxford (the Bodleian, named for Thomas Bodley back in 1602). Turbutt’s father found the book moldering in their library at home and he brings it in, maybe to ask about repairing the damage to the cover. Here’s a photo of the book… see the damage on the upper right side?

Ding ding ding… this rings all kinds of bells at the Bodleian, where such damage is not unknown. Falconer Madan, a “sublibrarian” (which doesn’t make him sound very important!) shows it to their bindings guy Strickland Gibson, who realizes the damage is from a chain… books were so valuable hundreds of years ago that they were chained to the shelves. No student thefts!

Hereford Cathedral Chained Library

Hereford Cathedral Chained Library

Gibson also recognizes the binding as the work of William Wildgoose, the go-to-bookbinder in early 17th century Oxford. This places this particular First Folio in Oxford in the 1620s, when the book was published. This sort of makes sense, because the Bodleian had a deal to get a copy of each published book, like the Library of Congress today. It’s odd, though. The Bodleian didn’t collect plays. At least, Sir Thomas Bodley didn’t intend to when he started the library at Oxford… he considered plays “idle books, and riff-raffs” according to a letter Mays found. Riff-raffs!

They apparently found room for Shakespeare at the Bodleian. (Sub)librarian Falconer Madan to the rescue (can we at least call the poor man a librarian after all these years?). He finds reference to this First Folio in a 1635 appendix to the Bodleian catalog (come on, he deserves to be called a full freaking librarian after that detective work, right?!). So how did it become unchained? Was it stolen? Ripped right off that  Bodleian shrine to learning, leaving future Oxfordian students Shakespeare-less?

Not to worry, our Librarian (yes! he deserves that title) Falconer Madan’s not done! He finds the First Folio no longer listed as belonging to the Bodleian in 1674. It’s been usurped by the (much inferior, we now know, but at the time cutting edge) Third Folio of 1664… an updated edition that included stuff Shakespeare didn’t even write! Yep, the new and improved Third Folio included such Shakespearean apocrypha as Locrine, The London Prodigal, The Puritan, Sir John Oldcastle, Thomas Lord Cromwell, and A Yorkshire Tragedy. You don’t see any of those plays staged by Shakespeare companies nowadays! Librarian Falconer Madan found that the Bodleian had sold off their First Folio with superfluous discarded books for only £24 to a man with a very ordinary name: Richard Davis. You’d think with all these other great names they could have found someone better-named to buy it. Oh well.

So, this was The One That Got Away from the Bodleian Library in the 1660s. Ahem. Shouldn’t the great library have it back? Librarian Falconer Madan thought so! He got all excited…. Andrea Mays says “jubilant” and showed it off in London, along with presenting all about his hard work (such a fine Librarian!). Only one other First Folio could be traced back to its original 1623 owner (and Henry Folger secretly already owned that one…. another great story, but you’ll need to get Mays’ book to read about the Vincent Folio!).

Mays says simply, “It was not wise of Falconer Madan to publicize his discovery. His excitement had trumped his prudence.” D’oh! Our poor Librarian thought for sure the Bodleian would get their book back automatically. Alas, he didn’t think through the logistics, like money, and the Turbetts now knowing it was worth a lot of money (even more now due to the fine research Librarian Falconer Madan conducted), and the Bodleian not having the money to buy it.

D’oh! Damn, damn, double damn. Can you imagine what Librarian Falconer Madan felt like when he realized what he’d done? Despair! As Mays says, “Madan would come to regret his naive enthusiasm.” D’oh! Bet he was fun to play poker with!


Stay tuned for the next installment of The One That Got Away!

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He was not of an age, but for all time

September 23, 2015 at 10:52 pm (Asides) (, , , , )

He was not of an age, but for all time.

This famous line is buried deep in Ben Jonson’s effusive eulogy to Shakespeare that appeared in the 1623 First Folio preliminaries (the stuff before the plays). It’s also the inscription that author Andrea Mays wrote in my copy of The Millionaire and the Bard. I was so excited to see Andrea speak at the Gaithersburg Book Festival last spring and I really enjoyed her book. It’s the story of Standard Oil executive Henry Folger’s obsessive accumulation of (82!) copies of the First Folio. (233 of the 750 First Folios printed in 1623 are known to survive; over a third of them are at the Folger Shakespeare Library.)

He was not of an age, but for all time.

"Henry Clay Folger (Salisbury, 1927)" by Frank O. Salisbury - Folger Shakespare Library Digital Image Collection Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons -,_1927).jpg#/media/File:Henry_Clay_Folger_(Salisbury,_1927).jpg

“Henry Clay Folger (Salisbury, 1927)” by Frank O. Salisbury – Folger Shakespare Library Digital Image Collection 

The more I thought about it, the more I thought the inscription applied to Henry Folger himself. Through his philanthropy, he turned his (really quite bizarre) hobby into a wonderful cultural legacy… he created (with the exceptionally anal attention to detail that seemed to be his trademark) and endowed the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

So, who was he? Folger was born into an old New England family with Nantucket roots. His uncle founded Folger’s coffee. He was frugal with money from his youth, scrappy at working his way through Amherst and Columbia Law, and then lucky at making friends with Charles Pratt, getting hired in Pratt’s family business which later became part of Standard Oil in the 1880s. Henry was great at his job and caught the eye of John D. Rockefeller. Woot! Pay day!

He was not of an age, but for all time.

So, did he do what most do when they hit it big? Nah. He and his wife Emily continued living their comfortable, but frugal lives. This left plenty o’ cash to indulge their passion for buying Shakespeareana. First Folios were the ultimate obsession, but really, they were (in)discriminate purchasers of all things Shakespeare-ish — playbills, costumes, snuff boxes, tchotchkes made out of the mulberry wood from a Stratfordian tree, I even saw some little Shakepeare-y ducks when I visited a few years ago. They were insatiable accumulators of Bardian stuff. And then Elizabethan/Jacobean stuff. They couldn’t be stopped.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

Why did they collect? Henry was a hoarder, let’s face facts. He had a problem. He never got rid of a book in his life, kept all the theater tickets, had lots of scrapbooks, you know what I’m saying. He started loving Shakespeare in college and developed a taste for buying old books before he could really afford them. They were two great tastes that tasted great together to him: Shakespeare and collecting. This became the lifelong focus for his obsessive hoarding as money flowed into his pockets and out to the numerous international book dealers he became friendly with.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

"Emily Jordan Folger (Salisbury, 1927)" by Frank O. Salisbury - Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection

“Emily Jordan Folger (Salisbury, 1927)” by Frank O. Salisbury – Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection

Emily was a willing and worthy partner in crime. She had an MA from Vassar with her thesis entitled, “The True Text of Shakespeare.” She loved Shakespeare as much as Henry, and while he worked long hours at the Manhattan offices of Standard Oil, she pored over book seller catalogs at their rented townhouse in Bed-Stuy, picking out the treasures they should bid on. She didn’t stop there. While Henry was the shrewd negotiator, tight with a penny (at least until The One That Got Away*), Emily was the cataloger — they didn’t work with a librarian. Emily’s thesis gives a hint, perhaps, to one of the reasons they collected so many First Folios. They had an idea that comparing the textual discrepancies between the First Folios might enlighten scholars as to Shakespeare’s true text for the plays… an idea that did not pan out.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

In any event, the Folger Shakespeare Library is not just Henry’s legacy, but a product of the pair — a real labor of love. I like thinking about the two of them sharing this hobby, enjoying it together, searching for these long lost books, many sitting collecting dust for centuries in country houses in England. I picture Emily and Henry relishing the hunt and lovingly unwrapping the trophies as they were shipped over the pond. For decades, they pretty single-handedly (double-handedly?) denuded England of these cultural treasures… in secret! Henry was publicity shy, partly because he was cheap and thought it would drive up prices if anyone knew he was on the hunt and partly because he was just shy. By the time they became known as collectors, they’d already acquired so much.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

Oddly… really oddly, Henry and Emily unpacked the shipments, meticulously recorded them, and then… packed them back up and put them in storage. Their townhouse was too small, so they rented many storage units. Most of their stuff was never seen again until it was unpacked at the Folger Shakespeare Library during the Depression. So odd. They collected, but not really for themselves. They enjoyed the hunt; but they collected all these treasures “for all time” — to create a library for others to use. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington houses their First Folios and other treasures (much of the collection is stored in basement vaults) and makes them available to readers… scholars for whom this collection is an amazing peek into early modern English literature, theater, art, culture, and history. The public rooms at the Folger are beautiful, they offer wonderful educational programming and lovely live performances. The Folger is a real gem in the city of Washington, a city full of cultural gems.

He was not of an age, but for all time.

And the library exists solely because of the Folgers’ lifelong pursuit of these items that perhaps should rightfully have stayed in England. Still, I won’t complain. They achieved something very special with the Folger Shakespeare Library. They planned every detail of the library, and they made sure the endowment to Amherst was large enough to sustain it… no small feat during the Depression, when it opened. Today, it is still a thriving institution. And Henry and Emily are there to watch over it for all time… their ashes are right there in the library’s Old Reading Room. RIP

*I’ll write about The One That Got Away soon.

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His wit can no more lie hid, then it could be lost

September 21, 2015 at 11:06 pm (Asides) (, , , , )

Title_page_William_Shakespeare's_First_Folio_1623 (2)

Title page of the First Folio with copper engraving of Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout. Image courtesy of the Elizabethan Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

This is my homage to John Heminge and Henrie Condell, actors who worked with Shakespeare, and in 1623 published the most amazing and unprecedented collection of his plays — the First Folio — a single book that saved from oblivion half of Shakespeare’s plays that come down to us from no other source. Without Heminge and Condell, Shakespeare’s wit would have been lost. Here’s what they wrote in the First Folio:

To the great Variety of Readers.

From the most able, to him that can but spell: there you are number’d. We had rather you were weighed; especially, when the fate of all bookes depends upon your capacities and not of your heads alone, but of your purses. Well ! It is now publique, & you wil stand for your priviledges wee know : to read, and censure. Do so, but buy it first. That doth best commend a Booke, the Stationer saies. Then, how odde soever your braines be, or your wisedomes, make your licence the same, and spare not. Judge your six-pen’orth, your shillings worth, your five shillings worth at a time, or higher, so you rise to the just rates, and welcome. But, whatever you do, Buy. Censure will not drive a Trade, or make the Jacke go. And though you be a Magistrate of wit, and sit on the Stage at Black-Friers, or the Cock-pit, to arraigne Playes dailie, know, these Playes have had their triall alreadie, and stood out all Appeales ; and do now come forth quitted rather by a Decree of Court, then any purchased letters of commendation.

It had bene a thing, we confesse, worthie to have bene wished, that the author himselfe had lived to have set forth, and overseen his owne writings; but since it hath bin ordain’d otherwise, and he by death departed from that right, we pray you do not envie his Friends, the office of their care, and paine, to have collected & publish’d them; and so to have publish’d them, as where (before) you were abused with diverse stolne, and surreptitious copies, maimed, and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious impostors, that expos’d them : even those, are now offer’d to your view cur’d, and perfect of their limbes; and all the rest, absolute in their numbers as he conceived them.

Who, as he was a happie imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers. But it is not our province, who onely gather his works, and give them you, to praise him. It is yours that reade him. And there we hope, to your divers capacities, you will finde enough, both to draw, and hold you: for his wit can no more lie hid, then it could be lost. Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe : And if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him. And so we leave you to other of his Friends, whom if you need, can be your guides: if you neede them not, you can lead yourselves, and others, and such readers we wish him.

John Heminge.
Henrie Condell.

Thank you Heminge and Condell! Really, to have such an impact on language and culture for hundreds of years, simply by doing the thing that Shakespeare himself died without doing — publishing the text of his plays. This preliminary from the First Folio is so interesting. First, you see their hope that people will buy the book so they can recoup something from what must have cost them a huge amount of money and been a big risk to publish. Next, the sweet tribute to Shakespeare, the writer, their friend:

Who, as he was a happie imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expresser of it. His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers.

And unusual for the time, when plays were seen as transient entertainments, not literature to be read again and again, Heminge and Condell recognize the plays for their literary value and tell you to do just that:

Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe : And if then you doe not like him, surely you are in some manifest danger, not to understand him.

Also in the First Folio preliminaries is the flowery eulogy from Shakespeare’s peer, the playwright Ben Jonson who gives us the famous line, “He was not of an age, but for all time!”

I am thinking lots about the First Folio lately, as I recently read The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays. It’s about Henry Folger’s obsessive collecting of First Folios (82! count ’em!) and other Shakespeareana and the building of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington… I blogged about my close encounter with a First Folio there a few years ago. I was glad to read more about Folger and his hobby. It’s quite a story… American chutzpah and wealth, eccentricity and obsession, culture clashes, and ultimately foresight and philanthropy. I’ll write about it soon. But it all goes back to Heminge and Condell, because without them, there would be no First Folio, and nothing to fill the Folger’s vast basement vaults.

Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC

Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC

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The Holy Grail

July 11, 2012 at 11:00 am (Asides) (, , , )

Sometimes I have to remind myself that Shakespeare produced plays, not literature. He presented live drama on stage, and these productions were ephemeral. They were meant to be watched and heard, not read. His works (and his beautiful words!) come down to us indirectly… there are no manuscripts in his handwriting. We can’t be sure they’re his precise words.

We have Shakespeare’s works today because versions of the dialog from his plays were printed (not by him). Some appeared simultaneously with the production of the plays on stage — in an informal, small pamphlet-type format called a quarto. These were printed cheaply, and the words came from various sources… some more reliable than others. There are “bad” quartos for some plays.

Today’s scholars and directors wrestle with various versions of the words of the plays because they vary in the different quarto texts. It is difficult to figure out which are truest to Shakespeare’s own words. For example,  Michael E. Mooney in the Colby Quarterly describes the issues with defining a “correct” text for a famous passage from Romeo and Juliet (Q1 and Q2 are different quarto versions):

Bad quartos, rightly judged poor texts, may in fact be superior scripts. In their attempts to provide us with the best version of the play, editors provide us with the fullest text, not necessarily the most accurate script. They have not totally subscribed to Q2, however, and that has allowed four centuries of readers and viewers to hold Juliet’s point in their minds:

Whats Mountague? It is nor hand nor foote,
Nor arme nor face, nor any other part.
Whats in a name? That which we call a Rofe,
By any other name would fmell as fweet, (Ql)

rather than Q2’s poorly printed, prosaic version:

Whats Mountague? it is nor hand nor foote,
Nor arme nor face, 0 be some other name
Belonging to a man.
Whats in a name that which we call a rofe,
By any other word would fmell as fweete.

The truth of the matter is more complex, however, since the version of these lines that we read and hold in our minds belongs neither to Q1 nor to Q2, but is the
product of the eighteenth-century editor, Edmond Malone, one of the earliest editors to conflate different texts in rewriting a passage we now believe to be Shakespeare’s:

What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,
Nor arm nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. 0 be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

So, there are problems with quartos, but at least it’s something to work with. Nearly half of Shakespeare’s plays were not published in quarto form. Nearly half of Shakespeare’s plays would be lost if not for a compendium printed several years after his death.

A First Folio. My Close Encounter With The Holy Grail.

A couple of actors decided to print a very expensive, large-format “folio” edition including text for all of Shakespeare’s plays. Think about this. Their efforts saved half of Shakespeare’s work from oblivion. And for those that had previously appeared in quarto form, the First Folio provides a comparison text that clarifies or corrects mistakes in the cheaper quarto versions. The story is even more complicated because the First Folio was such a huge printing job that it was farmed out to a number of different printers, and individual copies of First Folios can be identified due to typesetting variations!

From the Folger Shakespeare Library website:

Printed in the large “folio” size, the First Folio is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays. It was put together after his death in 1616 by two fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, and was published in 1623. The First Folio is the only source for eighteen of the plays, including Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and As You Like It, all of which would otherwise have been lost.

In other words, the First Folio is the Shakespearean Holy Grail. Think how much poorer we would be if it had not been published.

And I have seen the Holy Grail. Up close!

Eastern Shadbush

I am studying for a masters degree in Library Science and I live in a place that abounds in special libraries… that is, libraries that are not your neighborhood public library branch or affiliated with a school or college. Washington DC is the land of special, and some very special, libraries. And I am visiting as many of them as I can. There are SUCH cool things.

I could spend hours and hours looking at the beautiful watercolor herbals and botanical paintings in the special collections at the National Agricultural Library. I posted last spring about the Shakespeare exhibit at the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine. I went back for a tour of their rare books and I sat in the incunabula room surrounded by the really old books. There I saw some of the very earliest printed books. And I also came face to face with a first edition of Darwin’s On The Origin of Species.

How cool is that?

So, you can imagine I was a little excited to see the student chapter of the American Library Association offer a special library student tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library. Yes, please.

Folger Shakespeare Library with Capitol Building. Photo by Julie Ainsworth.

Somehow I’ve lived most of my adult life in the DC area without ever visiting the Folger. Mistake on my part. The Folger Shakespeare Library was built by Henry Folger, a Standard Oil executive, and his wife. They loved Shakespeare and began collecting for the purpose of creating a Shakespeare library for America. They bought the land for it purposely… it is literally across the street from the Capitol dome, around the corner from the Supreme Court, and next door to the Library of Congress. It is one of the many beautiful white buildings of official Washington.

Folger Shakespeare Library, Gail Kern Paster Reading Room with First Folios in the foreground! Photo by Julie Ainsworth.

However, the Folger Shakespeare Library is administered by Henry Folger’s alma mater, Amherst College. Unlike many of DC’s white buildings, it is definitely private property… not a government agency. The interior spaces are beautiful, ornately carved wood and stonework and beautiful stained glass windows. Wow. Did I mention that, according to their website, the Folger is the home of the world’s largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials, as well as major collections of other rare Renaissance books, manuscripts, and works of art.

Back to the First Folio. “The Folger holds 82 copies of the First Folio, about a third of those still in existence, and by far the largest collection in the world.” We were told during our tour that a First Folio recently sold for about $6 million. And did you catch that the Folger owns 82 copies of it? Yes, think about that for a moment.

Wow. The Holy Grail.

So, I was hoping to see one. Just one of the 82 copies in the collection. That didn’t seem too much to ask. I’ll get to that in a minute.

My friend and I arrived early for our tour and we had a chance to watch the actors rehearsing for The Taming of the Shrew in the Folger’s Elizabethan-style theater. I could sit there all day watching the director help the actors work on dialog — on getting everything just right, really thinking about the meaning of each word and figuring out how to get the meaning across to the audience through their tone and expression. So cool to watch this process which I also enjoyed in the Playing Shakespeare TV series.

Folger Shakespeare Library Great Hall. Photo by Julie Ainsworth.

We visited the exhibit about female writers in the English Renaissance in the beautiful and enormous Great Hall.

There, I spotted The Holy Grail. I was excited to see a First Folio on exhibit in the Great Hall. This area is free and open to the public, so if you want to see a First Folio, stop by the Folger during visiting hours. The First Folio in the Great Hall is in a glass case, not unlike the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian Natural History museum a few blocks away. There is a touch screen below this First Folio. You can page through and zoom in on a digital version of it, but that lovely book is safely behind thick glass. I thought this was as close as I would come to a First Folio. I was mistaken.

Our special tour as library students took us deep underground to The Vault. We didn’t go into The Vault. But we saw it. Now when you go see that First Folio in the Great Hall behind that plate glass… you’ll feel all excited, but you will not feel like I felt underground at The Vault. And they will not take regular tourist groups down there. Sorry.

So, then they took us into a viewing room and There, I Saw The Holy Grail.

A First Folio (oh and a Quarto version of Romeo and Juliet and a bunch of other things) sitting on a table for us to inspect closely. I didn’t touch it, but the Folger librarian paged through it with me and let me look at anything I wanted. Some photos of my close encounter are below. I would have looked at the whole thing page by page, but that would have been annoying, eh?

I was amazed, really amazed at the beautiful condition it’s in. The pages are crisp and clean, the print is clear and not faded at all. I really felt like I was looking at treasure. A cultural treasure right before my eyes. It was an amazing experience!

Because we were there on a library student tour, we were also interested in how rare books are handled. Gloves are no longer used, as they cause more problems than they solve (it’s easier to tear a page wearing gloves than with your bare fingers). You’ll notice little strands of cord in some of the photos. These are leaded and heavier than they look. They keep the pages open without creasing. There were little velvet bean bags on some books. The books are treated carefully and lovingly.

I’m glad I can share this experience with you. My visit to the Folger was back in April, so it has taken me a while to put together my thoughts and photos. I hope you enjoy! It was quite an experience for me!

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