Wherefore art thou folio?
A special library collection contains rare editions of printed Shakespeare plays
If you've ever ventured down to the second floor of the Goldfarb Library, chances are you've passed the Robert D. Farber University Archives and Special Collections office, even without even noticing. Inside those glass doors are some of the rarest and most valuable manuscripts, books and other historical documents in the world.
Among these treasures is a special Shakespeare Collection, recently highlighted in the Brandeis Special Collections Spotlight blog by Margo Kolenda '14.
The collection is categorized within the subset of the rare book collection and contains a wealth of material spanning hundreds of years. The First Folio is widely regarded as the gem of the collection, mainly because of its rarity. It is the first written collection of Shakespeare's complete works from the 17th century. Fewer than 450 copies of the Folio exist in the world today.
Other valuable items include a Second Folio and two Fourth Folios, which are reprints of the first, though there are a number of differences between them. The Second Folio first appeared in 1632, and the fourth Folio was published in 1685. All these Folios were donated by Allan Bluestein of the Brandeis Bibliophiles philanthropic club in the 1960s, except for one of the Fourth Folios, which were donated by Henry and Hannah Hofheimer at a later date.
Besides the Folios, Ruth Baldwin donated the other major component of the collection from the collection of her father, Thomas Whitfield Baldwin. It features a number of rare and interesting editions of Shakespeare's plays, and literary criticism from the 1700s through the 20th century.
Special Collections librarian Anne Woodrum said that the large time span the collection covers is one of its most interesting aspects. "[Readers] have the means to look at Shakespeare over the centuries," she said.
As Woodrum went to retrieve the materials, a woman working in the archives jokingly commented that every time the Shakespeare collection was brought out she expected to hear a Hallelujah Choir.
After placing three foam book supports out on the table, Woodrum gingerly removed the First Folio from its multiple layers of cardboard and paper wrapping.
Each page was a deep shade of orange. Woodrum explained that when they received what at this point was more of an artifact than a readable book, a decision was made to completely remove the binding because it was initially sewn too tightly, putting unnecessary strain on the pages.
The other Folios were not quite as antiquated. The Fourth Folio was much smaller in size than the second and first, and many different spellings of his name existed throughout the diverse volumes.
In total the Shakespeare collection consists of 206 written original plays, poems, and complete collections, as well as 58 pieces of literary criticism. It also includes a compilation of 12 portfolios of artwork that in some way relate or are inspired by Shakespeare himself. There is also an anthology of Shakespeare's poetry. The collection included a collection of poetry titled, "Shakespeare's Songs," with each poem separated on its own page written inside an artistic border.
A triple major in Comparative Literature, English and Hispanic Studies, Kolenda said she was excited for the opportunity to write a blog spotlighting the collection.
"I'm hoping to go to graduate school for [Renaissance literature] ... I wanted, while I was at an undergraduate level, to get a chance to work first-hand with primary texts like we have in the collection," she said.
Kolenda first heard about the collection as a first-year when she attended a close-looking series of the collection. "It was just so cool and so exciting," said Kolenda enthusiastically. "I wanted to take advantage of it while I was here."
In explaining why Shakespeare matters, Kolenda said, "the reason Shakespeare is such as big name in literature is that he really influenced just about everyone who came after him. Unlike some other popular writers of the time, "he really found a way to strike a balance between the interesting and literary parts of theatre," said Kolenda.
The Shakespeare collection, along with all the other rare books, archived materials and special collections are open not just to the Brandeis community but to anyone who wishes to view them. "We do try to make it easy for you to come and use our materials," Woodrum said.
Upon visiting the archive reading room, students immediately notice the cold temperature that the office staff maintain year-round as a preservation measure in order to prevent the degradation of archived and special collections materials. Pens and backpacks must be left at the door. The librarians offer visitors the opportunity to borrow from a collection of jackets and fleeces hanging in a small coat closet.
Whereas the general archived material includes written documents and visual collections that primarily document the history and growth of the University, the Special Collections branch contains a number of materials, including international, musical, political and literary pieces, to name a few.
Woodrum gave examples of some other types of material in the space. "Some interesting collections we have are the papers of Louis Brandeis and a Joseph Heller collection which includes the original manuscript for Catch 22," she said.
Kolenda explained that the reason many do not appreciate Shakespeare's work is because they misunderstand him as an irrelevant author. Kolenda, however, does not see it that way. "He is very fundamental in a way that's sort of hard to explain," Kolenda said.
"If you're talking to a Math major and you ask 'why do I need to know geometry?' they'll respond 'It's everywhere!' For me, Shakespeare is everywhere."