Friday, 18 July 2008

Shakespeare Centre Library and Archives

Librarian Clare Maffioli introduced us to the newly refurbished Shakespeare Centre Library and Archives by beginning in the catalog room—which still contained a card catalog, as they have not had the time or the funds to move the catalog online, since the library is totally funded by visitors and private donations. This library houses two collections—the local records collection, which includes documents about the area, and the Shakespeare collection, which focuses on the man and his work. The local collection includes photographs of Stratford and documents pertaining to the history of the town. The Shakespeare collection, which is obviously the focus of the library, includes the Royal Shakespeare Company archive, early publications of his work, source materials, and criticism and commentary about Shakespeare. The RSC archive has all of the information about all of the performances of the company, as well as a comprehensive collection of prompt books, playbills, programs, videos, and photographs of the performances.

Most of the archive materials are held in strong rooms below the reading room, catalog room, and entrance to Shakespeare’s birthplace. These rooms are temperature and humidity controlled, and they provide flood protection. All of the storage is archival quality, so that the materials aren’t damaged while they are kept. Conservation is a key concern of the archive; they use weights for books, only pencils are allowed, and readers must wear gloves when perusing the material. Three thousand readers come in every year, and they get nearly 5000 inquiries via e-mail and phone yearly. The researchers that utilize their facilities include local schoolchildren doing projects on community history, people researching their family histories through the street plan and burial plot records, and local high school students who are required to do a study of Shakespeare and come in to look at reviews, illustrations, and portraits dating back to the 18th century. Many fans of the performers use the image database that they have available for use locally, and which extends well into the past. They also have a performance database that is accessibly publicly online. Finally, they have the contextual researchers, or the serious Shakespeare or theater scholars, who use the facilities and archives for primary source research.

The aim of the Shakespeare Archives is to collect a representative collection of any and all materials related to Shakespeare that will make them a unique library. The staff is made up of about 12 professionals, including library assistants and subject specialists, and they rely heavily on volunteers for things like conservation work and building databases. The collection includes about 50,000 books and thousands of archival items, all housed onsite. Librarian Jo Wilding told us that when the trust to save Shakespeare’s birthplace was founded in 1847, the intention to start a library collection was always there, and the collection began in the 1860’s.

Ms. Wilding provided the highlights of our trip to the Shakespeare Centre—an up close, open air look at one of their copies of Shakespeare’s first folio, and a trip down into strong room 3 to have a look at Lord Strange’s copy of Plutarch, a book that Shakespeare very well may have actually used for reference. The first folio was published in 1623, seven years after Billy kicked it, by his contemporaries in Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The collection included 36 plays, 18 of which had not been published as quartos. These folios were sold for £1 apiece with binding, or about 1/20th of a teacher’s yearly salary. About 750-1000 of the folios were printed, and of those, experts think that about 228 may have survived. The last one that was sold went for £2.9 million. Only 35 of the 36 plays are printed on the title page, and no two copies of the folio are identical. It took almost two years to print all of the folios because they stopped the presses over 100 times to make corrections.

Ms. Wilding also showed the group some of the 250,000 uncounted and un-catalogued photographs that are a part of the collection, as well as some of the old playbills, pre-posters and prompt books that are part of the RSC archive. The collection is organized by a unique and idiosyncratic system that would be too much trouble to change, so they have kept it that way for years, despite the confusion that it causes. The treasures that are housed in the vaults beneath the Shakespeare center are too numerous to name, and it is amazing that they have been able to do all that they do without any government funding.

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