World’s largest collection of Shakespeare’s First Folios goes on display

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World's largest collection of Shakespeare’s First Folios goes on display

For book lovers who enjoy a good story, a library housing the world’s biggest collection of Shakespeare’s printed works has reopened with a new display of the bard’s works. And that’s just as they like it.

After being closed for an $80.5 million face-lift that took more than four years, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington reopened its doors to the public June 21, with the crown jewel of its collection — the 82 First Folios of Shakespeare — on display for public viewing. One of the most important books ever published, the 1623 publication contains 36 early editions of his plays — 18 of which might have been lost without being compiled and bound in the years following his death.

Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at the University of Oxford, calls the First Folios “the heart of the collection at the Folgers.”

“So it makes absolute sense to turn that into a public-facing display,” she told VOA. “To engage people who come and visit with what the kinds of works of scholarship are that underpin the collection.”

This is the first time all 82 of the Folger’s Folios will be on display at the same time — with the library being home to more than one-third of all Shakespearean Folios still in existence. Previously, the volumes were located in a vault that was not accessible to the general public.

“There was a real feeling, almost of theft in a way, that these had been taken out of public view,” Smith said. “I think one of the things that this new design in the Folger does is to almost kind of return them to a more public life.”

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Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon in Britain, said the Folger’s possession of the 82 Folios has allowed scholars to understand more about the volumes.

“What’s so striking about the Folger is that it managed to assemble a third of all surviving copies,” Dobson said. “Having lots and lots of copies of the same book, in one place, enabled people to compare them very, very minutely in ways that it wouldn’t have been practicable to do if they’d still been dispersed around.”

The Folios are protected by an enclosed glass class that is temperature-controlled. Bursts of light illuminate the display case at intervals.

The interim director of the Folger, Greg Prickman, described the display case’s conditions.

“[The Folios] are happiest when it’s completely dark, so the lighting level is low, which just helps prolong the materials that they’re made out of,” he told VOA.

The First Folios will remain at the Folger as part of a permanent exhibit in the library’s Shakespeare Exhibition Hall.

The reopening of the Folger, along with the new display, coincides with the library’s Out of the Vault: Into the Heart of the Folger exhibition, which will rotate objects on display from the vault every few months.

Prior to the renovations, the library consisted of a reading room for scholars and a theater where Shakespearean plays could be watched. Both areas remain untouched by renovations, with the exception of some new furniture.

Peggy O’Brien, director of education at the Folger, described the exhibits as a shift for the library, one expected to expand interest in the author’s work.

“It’s a leap for the Folger; I mean it offers a different kind of perspective to visitors, but the collection is at the heart of this whole institution, and they will always be,” she told VOA. “I want one of these kids to grow up and want to be reading as scholars in the reading room. So, we want to bring people closer to the collection and make it much more accessible.”

Prickman said the library has seen increased attendance since the reopening, although the Folger hasn’t collected precise data.

“We really, truly believe today that we want this library to be a place for all people to come and visit,” he said. “One way to make that tangible is by taking this [Folios] collection and putting it in a space that’s publicly visible.”

Along with two new exhibition halls, the renovation expands the library’s gift shop and gardens with plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, along with accessibility upgrades and a cafe that is still to come.

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