Cataloging and preserving the Shakespeare collection

Cataloging and Preserving the Shakespeare Collection is a three-year project at the Folger Shakespeare Library funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Catalogers are working to create and upgrade definitive records for the Folger’s more than 5,000 Shakespeare works in print from the 18th through 20th centuries. In addition to cataloging the books and making the records available online, the project brings together a team of curators, conservators, and reference members in order to conserve the materials for future generations of scholars, with procedures such as sending high spot volumes for off-site deacidification, as well as housing vulnerable materials in phase boxes, to preserve structural integrity.

some of the Folger's Shakespeare quartos

In part through NEH support, detailed online cataloging is available through Hamnet, the library’s online catalog, for the 197 copies of the Folger’s first four Shakespeare folios and for all copies of the pre-1641 quarto editions of Shakespeare’s plays, poetry, and apocryphal writings. Digital images of two First Folios and 218 quartos are freely accessible online. But beyond these earliest printed works, it is difficult for researchers to know exactly which Shakespeare editions the Folger has, since they are distributed throughout the collection with various degrees—or lack—of online cataloging or consistent bibliographic control. The only access to most of the Folger’s post-1700 editions of Shakespeare is through the on-site card catalog or the G.K. Hall printed edition of that file.

To date, research using this collection has proceeded more fortuitously, less systematically, and with more direct consultation with library staff than should have been necessary, due to limitations of the card catalog and existing online retrospective conversion records. Less experienced scholars are often unaware that they need to use the card catalog, yet most of the Shakespeare sets do not currently have online bibliographic records. And all scholars have needed help in navigating the card catalog to find specific editions, as the information provided on cards dating back to the 1950s is not complete, and is often hard to decipher, due to prior idiosyncratic practices.

As the rare book cataloger of the team, I am cataloging the 18thand early 19th-century publications. The earliest records to be upgraded were the various issues for the first “modern” edition, Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 Works of Mr. William Shakespeare, of which there are four issues: the “first” ordinary paper issue in 6 volumes, the large paper issue in 6 volumes, the large paper issue with the same setting of type, extended to 9 volumes, and the “second” ordinary paper issue, possibly a surreptitious reprint of the first, in 6 volumes. The cut-off point between the rare and modern materials cataloging for the project is 1830, a time period when hand-press printing was replaced by machine-press publishing. Post-1831 editions are cataloged by the modern materials cataloger utilizing Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, Second Edition (AACR2), which will be discussed in later blog posts.

frontispiece and titlepage to The Tempest in Rowe's 1709 9-volume issue

I am cataloging the pre-1831 books according to Descriptive Cataloging of Rare Materials (Books) rules (aka “DCRM(B)” in catalog-speak). I am creating original or upgrading existing records for use in OCLC/WorldCat, a global catalog of library collections. On an ongoing basis these records are loaded into Hamnet, the Folger’s online catalog. Additionally, 18th-century publications are added to the Folger’s holdings in the English Short-Title Catalog (ESTC). If no record exists for a publication, I report the information to the ESTC for a new record to be created.

Other libraries with these publications in their collections may add their holdings to our upgraded OCLC records for those items, which saves the time of having to produce and duplicate a record, as well as provides a fully upgraded record for their institution. Typical information which one might find in Folger records, but is uncommon in most other library’s descriptive cataloging practices, includes citations, authorized headings for the names of booksellers, editors, and illustrators, as well as rare book genre terminology. Among some of the most exciting information we are providing are the copy-specific and provenance-related notes. These include the names of former owners, descriptions of “bespoke” or publishers bindings, details about manuscript notations in the hands of previous owners, and in some cases, famous editors of Shakespeare.

Upon completion of the project, Hamnet will be the preeminent online catalog to research Shakespeare publishing history. Increasing the accessibility of this historically important collection and preserving it will serve the research needs of a world-wide community of students and scholars today and in the future. Stay tuned for further blog posts regarding the grant project, including preservation and modern materials cataloging.

Author: Carrie Smith

CARRIE SMITH was the Rare Book Cataloger for the NEH-funded Shakespeare Collection project from August 2010 through June 2013. She earned an MLS from Indiana University and studied Art History at Miami University of Oxford, OH. She is now a "roving" library technician for various Smithsonian History & Culture Libraries, including NMAI, MSC, and NMAH.

One Comment

  1. Dear Carrie
    Thanks for your piece about this fascinating project to provide authorititative catalogue records for these early editions. It’s particularly good that the results of this work will enable other libraries to identify and register their holdings accurately.
    Good luck!

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