Friday, 18 July 2008

Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive

  • Our speaker showing us one of their copies of Shakespeare's First Folio

July 18, 2008

Upon arriving in Stratford-Upon-Avon, we immediately went to the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive, where Clare Maffioli met us to begin our tour. We were taken in to the catalog and research room, which houses resources, cabinets of card catalogs, and four computers for online sources. This library was newly refurbished as a result of the merging of two institutions: the Records Office and the Library. Since the merging, their collection contains both local history resources in addition to the Shakespeare collection. Of course, many of the local resources are about Shakespeare himself and where he lived, so they nicely compliment resources about his works.

They have thousands of documents, maps, photographs, videos, and other varieties of resources. The Shakespeare collection is made up of two collections: The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Royal Shakespeare Archive (the latter of which they merely house). These collections contain early editions of Shakespeare's works, sources he may have used, criticisms and commentaries, performance histories, prompt books, programs, photographs, videos, and music. It is a unique and internationally important collection.

Most of the collection is kept in basement strongrooms, where temperature and humidity are controlled. They also have flood detection installed, and they ensure that all of their storage materials are of archival quality. They keep copies of many of the original manuscripts upstairs in the library proper, however, to aid with the preserving of the originals. When looking at original materials such as photographs, readers are required to wear gloves, use pencils instead of pens, and use weights to hold down pages.

Their electronic resources include an Image Database on their computers as well as a Performance Database, which is available online.

Over three thousand readers visit a year. They also answer enquiries by phone and e-mail (around 5,000 a year). Their readers are varied: some are schoolchildren doing projects on the local area (who use resources like street photographs and directories), some are people researching their family history or house history, and others are A-level students (17 or 18 years old) studying Shakespeare performance history (who use resources such as reviews, illustrations, and videos). They also attract visitors who are fans of various actors.

The library has around 12 staff members, including a special collections librarian, library assistants, subject specialists, and volunteers (who do a lot of their database work). They still use their card catalog. Items acquired during the year 2000 or after are online, but those dated before that are only accessible through the card catalog. They don't have any plans to undertake the daunting and time-consuming project of putting their entire catalog online any time soon.

They are a charity organization that does not receive any government funding. Mostly they rely on people paying to visit the houses and on donations.

Their collection development policy is mostly to obtain as much material as they can that relates to Shakespeare (anything from pre-1700 up until modern day). They even acquire foreign language material. They attempt to be representative and to acquire what will be of use as well as what other institutions don't have. In addition to their book collection, they do subscribe to some periodicals, and they have an interlibrary loan system in place with the British Library. Ms. Maffioli estimated that they have around 50,000 books in addition to myriads of archival material like maps.

We then wound our way through the maze-like building to meet Jo Wilding, who showed us a small sampling of the range and depth of materials that they hold. They have quite a broad spectrum.

The Trust was founded in 1847 to save the birthplace of Shakespeare and to collect items to form a library alongside it. They aim to collect anything concerning his life, work, and times - works of his contemporaries included. Much of their material comes from the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Library of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Their collection is built around their copies of Shakespeare's First Folio. This Folio was published in 1623 by two of Shakespeare's colleagues seven years after his death as a memorial. These editions of his plays are supposed to be the closest to the original copies of his plays. If it hadn't have been published, eighteen of his plays (previously unpublished) would have likely disappeared. The folio contains 36 plays. Quartos of individual plays were also published and sold for six pence apiece. Folios would have cost 15 shillings without the binding and £1 with the binding (expensive for the time, as a schoolteacher made about £20 a year). Now the folios sell for around 2.8 million pounds. Two hundred and twenty eight of the original folios survive, and their library has three of those copies. One of those copies is on permanent display in the visitor's entrance to the Birthplace (this copy is imperfect and has bits missing). Another better copy belongs to the Trust, while the third is the Theatre's copy (some of the pages are facsimiles).

The Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive also looks after the Royal Shakespeare Company's library and archive, which is quite extensive. They haven't counted the photographs, but there are likely a quarter of a million photos and slides. There are also prompt books, reviews, videos, and playbills. She showed us a playbill from 1816.

The library has 800 books printed before 1700. They cover some of his contemporaries as well as his potential sources, such as an herbal and a bestiary that she showed us that would have been available in Shakespeare's time. They also have the Plutarch's that belonged to Lord Strange; they believe that book to be the source of his Roman plays.

I was very impressed by all of the work and preparation that Ms. Wilding had done for our visit (as well as by her obvious enthusiasm for the materials and for her work.) She had laid out for us many manuscripts in their collection, including the quarto for A Midsummer Night's Dream and an herbal from 1597. They think this herbal is a potential source because both the herbal and Shakespeare spell thyme 'time' (although it could just be a coincidence). At one point in history it fell out of fashion to perform plays in their entirety, so she showed us examples of adaptations such as an opera with music by Henry Purcell. She also showed us some of their photographs (comparing an elaborate 1950's set with a minimalist 1970's one) and a facsimile of a special edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Also laid out were two editions of books of the royal families, a 1603 pocket atlas with its original binding, a 1572 handcolored earliest map of London, a history of four-footed beasts (the favorite of many of their employees) containing animals both real and mythological, an example of costume designs, their earliest part book (1889, containing handwritten notes and a drawing of the stage set for the first scene), and a poster advertising the first production of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (Much Ado About Nothing in 1879).

Then she surprised us by showing us one of their Folios. This one had Victorian binding and some facsimile pages, but it was still incredible to see. She stressed that no two copies are identical, as they kept stopping the presses to make corrections. This one also had some curiously drawn pointing hands by some of its passages added by one of its previous owners.

As another surprise (perhaps due to our enthusiasm), she took us down into the basement strongholds, where we saw more of their rare books as well as where they stored all of their various videos and other materials.

All of us were convinced that we saw far more than any of the other classes who visited Stratford with us. Librarians get to see all of the cool things.

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