The Director and Trustees of the University of London’s Senate House Libraries are proposing to sell copies of the Library’s first four Shakespeare folios. Although a “public consultation” is planned, it is understood that the books are already with Bonhams the auctioneers, with a sale scheduled for November.
These folios form a critical part of the collection left to the University of London by Sir Louis Sterling in 1956—less than 60 years ago—on condition that they remain permanently in the University Library. In order to ensure their future security, Sterling also provided a generous endowment to support the collection. Until now, the University of London has been proud to provide “an unusually integrated resource for research on the transmission of English literary texts from the 14th century to the present”. The folios are first on the list of these resources in the Sterling Library’s current website.
One of the excuses for the sale is that the folios are “duplicates”. That is bibliographically unsound, for books printed in the handpress era are full of variants caused by human intervention and mistake. Furthermore, modern academic research is as likely to focus on the copy-specific features of the book (its binding, annotations, and provenance) as on the text itself. The catalogue for the Senate House folios actually notes that these copies are not duplicates.
The Director hopes that the proceeds of the intended sale can be used to create an endowment fund that will attract more readers and strengthen Senate House’s case for the restoration of HEFCE (Higher Education Funding Council for England) funding as a National Research Library. Selling off the Library’s heritage is no way to impress HEFCE, or anyone else. Rather the sale of these volumes is likely to:
- damage the reputation of the Senate House Library as one of the UK’s leading humanities research collections;
- result in the transfer of these four iconic and unique books from public access to private hands;
- jeopardize future benefactions, not just to Senate House but to other UK research libraries;
- raise questions about the management of the funds left by Sir Louis Sterling.
The Bibliographical Society therefore urges the Director and Trustees of the Senate House Libraries to reconsider and reverse this misguided initiative.
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