The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Photostats, or, The more things change, the more they stay the same

Five weeks, and seventeen back-and-forth notes and letters. That’s what it took for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s first director, William Slade, to overcome the architects’ doubts that the library really did need a costly No. 4 Photostat machine and that it really was worth the “troublesome and expensive job” of making it fit into a two-room suite designed for a smaller, cheaper, No. 2 Photostat machine. 1 Why was it so important for the Folger to have a high-capacity Photostat machine?

Simply put, photostats revolutionized the study of rare books in the 1910s and 1920s. 2 For the first time, libraries could quickly make reasonably affordable reproductions of their holdings available for consultation off site. Research that had once been cost-prohibitive because it required in-person travel or photography suddenly became possible.

Traditional photography had been used for reproducing rare books since at least the late 1850s, but it was expensive and time-consuming. 3 With traditional photography, the camera captures a latent image on light-sensitive transparent film or glass that is then developed and fixed to produce a transparent negative. Next, the transparent negative is exposed onto light-sensitive paper, and then that latent image is developed and fixed to create a positive image on paper. Photostats completely bypass the film stage by exposing the image directly onto a long roll of light-sensitive paper, and greatly speed up the other steps by having them all happen inside the machine while new images continue to be taken.

Woman standing next to large photographic apparatus
City of Winnipeg Archives. Photostat Camera and Operator, 1954 (A568 File 15 Item 6)

Basically, the photostat machine is a great big camera with a built-in processing lab attached at the back. The operator puts an original document face-up on a flat bed in front of the camera, and the camera’s lens assembly projects an image of the document onto the roll of sensitized paper. After about ten seconds of exposure, the operator winds the paper forward for the next shot, moving the exposed paper past a sheet trimmer and into the chemical baths that develop and fix the image. Photostats could be air-dried, but to speed up the process, the Folger’s machine included an electric dryer with conveyor belts.

The Folger’s  photostat machine was built around an opening in a wall wall so that the paper coming out the back could arrive in a darkroom (the “Laboratory” in the architectural plan). However, because the rooms had been built for a smaller machine, space was tight, and the plumbing and electrical outlets were in the wrong places. With plenty of help from the Washington office of the Photostat Corporation (which also preferred that the library purchase the $2,190 No. 4 system, not the No. 2) the architects managed to make it work in the existing space, seen below in a detail from the original plans for the Folger’s second floor. 4

Detail of Photostat Room and Laboratory from Sheet 5 (“Second Floor”) of Folger Shakespeare Library plans, Nov. 4, 1929.

The importance of the photostat room was noted in press and publicity when the library opened in 1932. For instance, a gushing description of the Tudor-style Reading Room in a supplement to The Washington Post ends with “[Mr. Folger’s] capacity to sympathize with the modern scholar’s requirements is exemplified by the fact that a properly equipped photostatic laboratory is hidden behind the paneling.”  5

Because photostats are direct images, the blacks and whites are reversed, like a film negative in traditional photography. The Folger copy of the 1656 translation of Jean-Nicolas de Parival’s History of this iron age (Hamnet record) includes an example:

Torn page with missing text; full page of white-on-black text.
Damaged leaf followed by a negative photostat of the same leaf from another copy of the book. Notice that the photostat itself has deteriorated: the “silver mirroring” or “silvering” causing reflection in parts of the dark areas is the result of silver oxidation in the light-sensitive emulsion.

As you can see from the photo, the last leaf of the volume has major losses to the text. Photostats of the same pages from an undamaged copy were inserted when the book was conserved and rebound. 6

If you only need one copy of a page, and don’t already have a photostat of that page on file, a negative photostat is the cheapest way to go: you make a photostat of the page, and you’re done. But if you make a photostat, then make a photostat of that photostat, the negative/positive reverses again, and you get black letters on a white page. But you’ve just spent twice as much on supplies. For example, leaves b2 and b3 are missing from the introduction to the Folger copy of the 1688 edition of The lives of the popes (Hamnet record), so positive photostats of from Harvard’s copy are provided in a separate envelope:

Open book, envelope, photostats
Two missing leaves provided separately as positive photostats from another copy.

Because positive photostats are second-generation copies, the letters are usually a bit fuzzier than in negative photostats, but they’re much easier on the eye to read.

The Bibliographical Society of America devoted their 1921 annual meeting to the topic of photostats and photographic reproductions in bibliographic research. Reading The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, volume 15, part 1, you could substitute “digital image” for “photostat” and almost invariably have something that sounds like it was written in the past ten or fifteen years.

Just as people today dream of digitizing at least one copy of every book ever, people in 1921 dreamed of a coordinated system to make a negative photostat of every book. George P. Winship, librarian of the Widener Collection at Harvard, wrote about how “this whole problem of photostatting for libraries can be handled satisfactorily” by means of a “grand central storehouse, centrally located and big enough to keep all the negatives that have been or are to be made, with facilities for making prints promptly whenever a student anywhere wants them for use.”  7 To be fair, he was only talking about every book and future book in American libraries, not the whole world, but that’s still a lot of books.

Henrietta C. Bartlett, who used photostats extensively when comparing Shakespeare quartos, included a warning about their limitations in her praise:

The only serious “out” is that one cannot tell anything about the paper and therefore cannot tell whether the leaf is genuine or spurious, whether it originally belonged there or was from another copy or edition, whether some leaves have been canceled or not. … The photostat is better, I believe, than any other method of reproduction, but it should not be considered of equal value to the student with the original. 8

During the discussion period following Chester March Cate’s presentation “The Photostat and the Huntington Library,” attendees “spoke of the possibility of altering or faking photostat copies” and worried about “the permanency of reproduced copies.” 9 H. H. B. Meyer, Chief Bibliographer at the Library of Congress, supported the plan to create a central depository of photostatic negatives, and agreed that the Library of Congress would be the best place for it, but had to allow as how it was impossible at the moment because the library “was unable to do its own work properly, owing to lack of resources.” 10 Does any of this sound familiar?

Only one part of the 1921 discussion struck me as unfamiliar, and I’m very glad for that. Chester March Cate wrote that pointing out an error in another library’s catalog produced “so spirited a reply” from the librarian that he didn’t want to ask the same librarian to double-check the imprint of another book, which he suspected had been mis-transcribed in the catalog. “He, however, readily acceded to our request for a photostat; and by that means we were able to to confirm our suspicions of his error and at the same time to preserve cordial relations between the two institutions. 11 If you suspect something in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s catalog is incorrect, please DO let us know by emailing Our reply will also be spirited, but the energy will be an enthusiastic “Thank you!”

  1. Letters and notes dated between March 19, 1931 and April 23, 1931 in the “Cret, Paul Philippe” correspondence file for 1931. The “troublesome and expensive” warning comes in a letter from J.E. Hutchison to Paul Philippe Cret dated March 31, 1931.
  2. Like “Xerox” and “Kleenex”, the Photostat brand became so closely associated with the product that the trademarked name became genericized in American English. In British English, the trade name “Rotograph” became the generic term for the same thing.
  3. The earliest example I know is a reproduction of the 1617 edition of the anonymous play The Famous Victories of Henry the fifth that was produced in 1857. According to the handwritten note by J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps on the endleaves of the four copies at the Folger, “The negatives are destroyed and only ten perfect copies are preserved.” They are now almost illegibly pale.
  4. The suite has since been further subdivided, and is now a shared semi-open office area adjacent to the elevator.
  5. James Waldo Fawcett, “Folger Library Called Gem of Architecture,” The Washington Post, April 23, 1932, page 1 of supplement.
  6. Note that this practice was short-lived. More often, photostats of missing or damaged pages in the Folger collection are housed in separate envelopes shelved next to the volume, where the photographic paper will not be in contact with the original paper in the book.
  7. Letter dated July 5, 1921, as cited by Frederick Ives Carpenter, “The Photographic Reproduction of Rare Books,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, volume 15, part 1, page 41.
  8. Letter cited in George Watson Cole, “The Photostat in Bibliographical and Research Work: A Symposium,” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, volume 15, part 1, page 14.
  9. From the minutes of the annual meeting on June 22, 1921, as published in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, volume 15, part 1, page 50
  10. “Discussion of Photographic Reproduction” at the December 21, 1921, meeting of  the Bibliographical Society of America as summarized in the minutes published in The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, volume 15, part 1, page 52.
  11. Chester March Cate, “The Photostat and the Huntington Library, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, volume 15, part 1, page 19.


  • Fascinating topic! I’m wondering about a minor detail: when did the Folger get rid of its photostat machine?

  • I’ve been trying to find out, too. The best I’ve been able to determine so far is that it was definitely gone by 1974: that’s when the current longest-serving staff member started here, and she knows it was already gone then.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)