Arch. G c.7

Shakespeare's First Folio

…to report a little of that worthy work perform'd
Coriolanus (Act II, scene ii)

Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies is the 1623 posthumously published collection of William Shakespeare's plays, and is commonly referred to as the First Folio. The Bodleian received a copy in 1623, but appears to have sold it in the late 1660s. The whereabouts of the Bodleian's copy were unknown until 1905, when an undergraduate at Magdalen College brought a book to the reading room for advice. This book was identified as the lost First Folio. Publicity about the find led to the owners, the Turbutt family of Derbyshire, being offered £3,000 on behalf of an anonymous buyer. The Turbutts offered the Bodleian the chance to match the offer, and thus the first public fund-raising campaign in the library's history was born. The money was raised just in time and the First Folio returned to its original owner. The anonymous buyer turned out to be Henry Clay Folger, whose collection now stands as the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.  In 2012, the Bodleian launched a second campaign, Sprint for Shakespeare, in order to raise funds to bring this volume in digital form, to the world.

Prior to digitisation, the First Folio was physically stabilised in the Conservation Department over a 10 day period. Work was carried out as a collaborative effort by members of the book conservation team: Nicole Gilroy (Head of Book Conservation Team); Andrew Honey and Sabina Pugh (Senior Book Conservators); Arthur Green and Julie Sommerfeldt (Book Conservators).

The volume has never been rebound, and apart from some paper patches added in the eighteenth century by its previous owner, the collector Richard Turbutt, it has never been repaired. The unique damage to this copy of the First Folio is crucial evidence of its history and usage.  The onus was on us, then, to interfere with it as little as was absolutely necessary.

However, the plan to digitizing every page of the volume raised some major concerns. Comparing images of the volume taken in 1905 and in 2012 revealed a tear in the leather along the joint of the upper board had extended to half the length of the board.


Additionally, the board attachment was very fragile. Even with the utmost care, the handling and movement required for digitization would cause the board attachment to deteriorate, and to repair a detached board involves significant interference to the structure of the book. Our first job was to support this weak board attachment. A laminate of toned Japanese paper was created to bridge between the spine of the text-block and the board. Secured with wheat-starch paste, this patch supports the opening of the board while preventing further tearing of the leather.

With the joint support patch functioning well, the volume could finally be opened more confidently. One complete pass through the textblock was made, leaf by leaf, revealing obscured text by unfolding areas of damaged paper, and also making a note of leaves requiring splint repair. Unfolding creases was kept to an absolute minimum, only treating areas where text was obscured. It proved an interesting discipline to ""sit on our hands"" where, in most of our usual work, we would judge it was appropriate to do more in-depth treatment.

Comparing an image of the condition of page 69 of Romeo and Juliet in The Original Bodleian Copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare (The Turbott Shakespeare), with the leaf in its current state, revealed that the leaf appeared, after 107 years, in identical condition, including the crumpled edge and extent of the tears. This indicated that although extreme damage was caused to the paper of the textblock during the first 40 years of its existence, the most serious damage caused in the more recent years (since 1905) has been to the attachment of the upper board, while the state of the paper seems to have remained constant. A strong reminder to us all of the importance of careful book handling and the use of suitable book supports when working with our Special Collections!


Examining this book leaf by leaf revealed many interesting features such as variations in Turbutt's old paper repairs, tears that appear to have occurred during the papermaking process rather than from handling of the book, and potential signs of edge trimming of the text-block using a draw knife.

We recorded as much detail of these as possible as this kind of information had, to our knowledge, not been documented for this volume before, and would also be difficult to examine in future using the flat, digitized images. Several of these features made us think that this book was not quite the luxury item we might have thought it was.

After working through the entire volume turning over obscured text, splint repairs using tiny pieces of Japanese paper and wheat starch paste, were applied to selected leaves, to prevent tears from lengthening as the leaves were turned during the digitization process.

During treatment, we noticed a break in the textblock. Such a break is common to see in the middle of a book and is usually caused by a split in the sewing or spine linings or adhesive. Initially apprehensive that our working through the book leaf by leaf was causing the damage to worsen, the photographic record of the condition of the book soon after its return to the Bodleian again showed the damage had already happened at that point in time.


Throughout the two weeks of conservation treatment, we received visits from a variety of people with an interest in this book and the project, from within the University but also from the Globe Theatre in London, the Shakespeare Institute and elsewhere. Many interesting blogs by various visitors were subsequently posted on the project website, and discussions during the visits generated some fascinating analysis of physical evidence. There was considerable response to the project from the media, with journalists from the local news as well as The Guardian and BBC Radio 4 also visiting to see and report on our work. The team was delighted to host a visit from Vanessa Redgrave who gave her enthusiastic and heartfelt support to the project. It is unusual for conservation to be the physical focal point of such collaborative interest, and there was a real 'buzz' in the department during these two weeks.

A new custom-made box was commissioned from Bridget Mitchell of ARCA Preservation Ltd.; though the First Folio had a presentation box, made for it by the Oxford firm Maltby's on its return to the library, the box is damaged and no longer protected the book sufficiently. In true Bodleian style the old box, in its own card box, is retained alongside it on the shelf!

In the third week, the project moved on to the digitization itself. The work of the Conservation team continued, as we worked closely with our specialist photographers to ensure the safety of the book while getting the best possible images.

Our brief time with this very special book sparked our interest in many areas: the binding methods and techniques, the paper quality, the material used for repair patches and much more. We have been following up the threads of evidence that were picked up during this treatment. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this project for us has been the experience of safeguarding damage as valued evidence and not repairing it.

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