Everybody knows that the library holds a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio. [You didn’t know?! Well then, you should check out the Shakespeare exhibition on level 3.] But how did it come to be in the possession of the library? To find out the provenance of this important work, I donned my deerstalker and pipe (unlit) to carry out a bit of detective work using the archival records of the Library Committee of the City Council.
The first step was to find out when the first folio came in to the library’s possession. Each and every item that came into the library from 1879 onwards was given an accession number sequentially from 1 onwards. The first folio has the accession number 35470. Knowing this, I was able to check the Location Books (the closest thing we have to accession registers as the actual registers for this period are not extant). This tells us that the volume came in around 1881.
Armed with this knowledge, I went to the records of the Free Libraries Committee (reference: BCC/1/AT/1/1/5) held in the Archives and Collections stores knowing that I was looking for a minute referring to the first folio somewhere in 1881.And there we have it: the Libraries Committee reported on the 7th of December 1881 that the first folio (and, intriguingly, third folio) were bought together for £310 by a resolution of the Management Committee. To put this into some context, the chief librarian’s salary at that time was £3 a week [cf. BCC/1/AT/1/1/5, minute 4634]. But where were they purchased? To dig deeper we go to the minutes of the Management Committee (BCC/1/AT/3/1/1). Sure enough, the minutes for the 29th of September 1881 tell us:
So here we see in minute 305 that the first edition is being offered by ‘Mr. Quaritch’. Now we have the name of the seller. Mr. Quaritch in this instance is Bernard Quaritch, a famous London second-hand bookseller. You can find out more about Mr. Quaritch and his firm here.
Now we know that the first folio was bought from Mr. Quaritch, a London bookseller. But the minute from the Libraries Committee states that we bought a first and third folio together – how did this come to be? What else can we find out? We know from minute 305 above that the Management Committee requested the Book Committee to look into purchasing the first folio so next stop: Book Sub-committee minute book (BCC/1/AT/6/1/1). Here we find in minute 47 that “the chairman be requested to write to Mr. Quaritch with reference to the purchase of the first and third editions of the works of Shakespeare and report.”
The next we hear about the first folio is when the Book Sub-Committee meet again on the 2nd of November 1881. Here the chairman reports that generous Mr. Quaritch would do us a buy one get the second (sort of) half price special offer.The very next minute (Minute 48) states that the Chairman’s report be approved and the first and third folios of the works of Shakespeare be purchased for three hundred and ten pounds of Mr. Quaritch. A report was made that same day that “they have purchased the first and third folios of the works of Shakespeare for the sum of £310*, having already as gifts the seconds and fourth folios. These will complete this valuable series of early editions.” So at this point the library had a set of all 4 folios. Where did the 2nd and 4th copies come from? That, dear reader, I’ll leave as a mystery until next time.