Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Shakespeare Centre Library and Archive

This gem in Stratford-Upon-Avon was an incredible place to visit, but even more incredible is the fact that, what should be treated as a national treasure is a private, non-profit entity receiving no public funding. Clara Moffioli, Deputy Head of the library, gave us some general background information on the library and its collections before turning us over to User Services Librarian Jo Wilding to discuss some examples of the library's holdings in-depth.

Recently renovated, the library holds two main collections: the local collection and the Shakespeare collection. The first relates to Shakespeare as a person living in a particular time and place, and so contains materials relating to the history of Stratford-Upon-Avon during his time. The second collection deals with materials relating to Shakespeare the playwrite and his works. Patrons come to the reading rooms in search of information from both collections. School children doing projects relating to local history come looking for such things as old city maps and directories to compare with modern-day Stratford. The library has books similar to our city directories, but they include each person's profession as well. These are useful to people researching family history, as are the local cemetary plot indexes. A-level students also come in, but to study Shakespeare's works and histories of performances - including videos - as the study of Shakespeare is a required part of the national curriculum, and is included in exams. Fans of various actors come looking for performance photos, which can be searched from inside the library in their image database. An actors performance history is also accessible through the performance database, which can be used remotely through the library's website. Cast lists for specific plays can also be found here.
In addition to the materials in the reading room collections, the library has substantial archives of such things as early examples of Shakespeare's works, source materials which may have influenced his writing, criticisms and commentaries, and items relating to the history of performances. The library keeps copies of all prompt books, programs, photos, videos, music, costume and set designs, etc from all performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
The library's collection development policy is essentially to attempt to collect a representative range of materials relating to Shakespeare's life, times, and works, especially any items that may be unique, in addition to archiving all RSC performance documents. They currently hold approximately 50,000 books, pamphlets, and manuscripts; but many items comprise only single sheets of paper, so it is difficult for them to know exactly how many items they own.

Ms. Wilding organized a wonderful display of items from the library's archives for us, basing her choices on two themes: A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the Histories, as well as showing us one of the library's copies of the First Folio. Her presentation included some general historical information on the the Shakespeare Trust and the items in the collection.
Before turning to the display, Ms. Wilding discussed the history of the First Folio, of which the library owns three. She explained that the term 'folio' is a publishing term, which refers to the fact that the printed pages are folded only once to create the pages of the book. This results in a much larger and more expensive edition than a 'quarto', which is folded twice. Over 200 copies of Shakespeare's First Folio were published in 1623, seven years after his death, by two of his good friends and colleagues. It is assumed that many of Shakespeare's plays would have been lost had his friends not undertaken this task, as 18 of the plays included in this volume had not previously been published elsewhere. The copy we were shown was the theater's copy, and, by Ms. Wilding's account, the most interesting because of various notations.

Highlights from the display:

A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • 1690 quarto of the play
  • Playbill from 1816
  • Handcolored herbal guide, 1597 (unfortunately, I did not write down the name, because I have a photograph of it, which has not been developed yet)
  • A copy of Purcell's opera the Fairy Queen
The herbal guide is one that was in publication at the time Shakespeare was thought to have written A Micsummer Night's Dream, so it is possible that he referred to it in writing the play, which is rich in botanical imagery. Two particularly interesting items mentioned by Ms. Wilding were the reference in the play to 'loving idleness', which was a local name used for pansy; and the spelling of thyme as 'time' by both Shakespeare and the author of the herbal - was it a common spelling at the time, or did Shakespeare get the spelling from this text?

The Histories
  • A history of Lancaster and York, 1550 (extremely long title; I have an undeveloped photo of it)
  • A 1603 pocket atlas, in its original binding; the sort of thing Shakespeare would have seen around
  • Full-color map of London made in 1572
  • History of Four-Footed Beasts, 1658 - originally published in 1600, so it would have been available to Shakespeare
  • Costume design (color sketch) for the 1951 production of Henry V starring Richard Burton
  • 1889 prompt book for Henry V - the oldest prompt book in the collection
We also saw an 1879 poster for Much Ado About Nothing, the first production to play when the RSC theater opened.

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