September 2013 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Senate House Library to Sell its Shakespeare Folios?

Word circulated on several electronic discussion lists yesterday that London's Senate House Library--the central library of the University of London--plans to sell four Shakespeare Folios at a Bonhams auction this November. The immediate effect of the sale would be to create an endowment in order to attract more readers and push for restoration of government funding lost in 2006.

Professor H.R. Woudhuysen at Lincoln College, Oxford, sent a long letter last week to Christopher Pressler, director of Senate House Libraries, responding to Pressler's request for 'support' in his decision to sell the folios. Woudhuysen, also vice-president of the Bibliographical Society and co-general editor of The Oxford Companion to the Book wrote, "I have come to the conclusion that I am not able to offer the support that you seek and that I am entirely against any such move." He goes on to say, "On the basis of the documents that I have seen, it seems to me that the sale and its implications have not been thought through properly and that the Trustees have already taken a decision to sell the books through Bonhams, making any public consultation merely decorative. The decision will, I hope, attract a great deal of opposition from supporters of Senate House and if executed, it will, I fear, make many who are supporters of the library and possible donors to it turn their charitable interests elsewhere."

Book historians and special collections librarians on the ExLibris and SHARP-L lists (and Twitter) noted that this type of "asset stripping" in collections is hardly new and should be carefully scrutinized. Library-donor relations are a major theme of this conversation, as many wonder how to trust a library that renegotiates the status of a gift fifty and one hundred years on. The folios in question were donated to the university by Sir Louis Sterling in 1956; as a group, the four have been together since the 1830s. The SHL's website calls the Sterling collection, "an unusually integrated resource for research on the transmission of English literary texts from the 14th century to the present day."

While Professor Woudhuysen did receive a "bland reply" from Pressler in response to his letter, the SHL has not issued an official statement on the auction. A request for comment sent to Mr. Pressler yesterday has not yet received a reply.

Today, The Bibliographical Society joined the debate by starting a petition that urges the SHL to "reconsider the proposed sale of its first four Shakespeare Folios." After signing his support on that page, antiquarian bookseller Laurence Worms commented, "I teach at the London Rare Books School at Senate House. This proposal damages the very basis of all we try to do."