The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Folger files; or, a fetch-quest come to life

“MS. corrections to the text, by the author (Folger files).” Such an innocuous note in the Folger copy note field of the record for our second copy of Philip Massinger’s The Bond-man (STC 17632). Meaghan Brown, the Folger’s CLIR Fellow, came across it while doing a survey of our collection of early modern drama. There are hundreds of notes like it in Hamnet. In most cases, the “Folger files” referred to are either the Case Files or Curatorial Files.

The Case Files are the records from the purchases the Folgers themselves made: as items were acquired, they were given a case number, and associated documentation—such as the bookseller’s catalog, correspondence, newspaper articles about the sale, even labels from packing slips—was carefully saved. They are an amazing source for provenance research and simply knowing more about a particular item. The Curatorial Files are similar, collecting documentation on noteworthy items in the collection.

However, in this case, that note sent me on a two day treasure hunt through Folger institutional archives to try to sort out what, exactly, was going on.

It started out as a simple enough request: Meaghan asked if I could find the file on this item, so that she could verify exactly why the manuscript annotations are being attributed to Massinger himself.

The Hamnet record gave me my starting point—well, what should have been my starting point: 

The record for STC17632 when the adventure started.
The record for STC17632 when the adventure started.

That “cs” number is how we indicate the Case File number in our records. So I dutifully ran down to the catalog office, where we keep all of the files, and began looking for the right one. Then I hit my first complication: I could only find Case Files up to numbers in the 2000s.

Confused, I asked Erin Blake, who informed me that the Case Files only go up that far. Then what do I do with this case number that seems to start with 5-? I asked. To the cards! she replied, leading me over to the bank of card catalog drawers in the office.

We pulled out the cards for the play and discovered two important facts:

Catalog office cards

First, that the 5293 number was actually an accession number, not a case file number (you can see above the “ac” number on the top card that copy 1 does have a proper case file number); and second, that the attribution of the manuscript annotations to Massinger was definitely part of the original cataloging of the item.

However, that opened up a second problem: Folger accession numbers are six digits, not four. (Readers of this blog will be familiar with them from some of the call numbers of items we have written about. Any call number that is in the format “XXX- XXX” is actually the accession number doing double duty! Sarah wrote a bit more about the use of accession numbers as call numbers in her post identifying the books depicted in our header.)

Clearly, the answer to a strange accession number would be found in the Acquisitions Office, so that was my next stop. I explained the situation to Laura Cofield, who agreed that a four-digit accession number was unlikely, and showed me where to look up the play by author name in the  Acquisitions Office’s alphabetical card file.

Acq Card for STC17632 c2

This card certainly answered some questions, but raised others. It was clear, now, that there would be no Case File: this item was acquired in 1936, after the library had opened. There might be a Curatorial File, but after a quick look, there proved to be nothing in those files either.

Even more interesting, were the traces of a previously written order number behind the “1436.” We took a closer look:

Closeup of the order number on the acq card
The number 5293 has been erased and overwritten with 1436

Well, now we knew where my erroneous case number turned accession number had come from. It really was the accession number at one point, although with a peculiar four-digit one. But why had it been changed on the Acquisitions  card and nowhere else? And where was this “file” that supposedly existed, discussing the attribution of the manuscript annotations?

The next stop was a brief detour up to our public card catalog file, to see if those cards provided any additional information (they didn’t), and then back down to the Acquisitions Office to investigate the binders of orders history that are kept there.

We found the order, under number 1436, and the letter confirmed that The Bond-man was purchased with seven other Massinger plays from W. T. Spencer in 1936. The notation on the letter reads “Order No. 1436 to 1443,” indicating that each play was given a different order number, despite being purchased as a lot.

But I was still no closer to discovering what “file” the catalog record was referring to. About the only thing I had to go on at this point was the fact that the play had been bought as part of a lot. Perhaps the other items might have a clue? Since I was still in the Acquisitions Office, I pulled out each of the alphabetical cards for this purchase—and had a surprise when I ended up with nine cards, rather than the eight I expected.

The unexpected ninth card.
The unexpected ninth card.

This ninth card was a single card for the whole set. It repeats the information from the other cards and the order letter, and has one critical annotation.

Greg reference on card
“also W. W. Greg pamph.”

W. W. Greg was one of the foremost bibliographers in the first half of the 20th century, but I was not sure what that note could mean. So I did what I often do when faced with some obscure piece of Folgeriana, and asked Betsy Walsh.

Her thought was that since there was no Curatorial File in which a pamphlet might be found, perhaps it was something that had been cataloged and put into the collection. A few keystrokes later, and she had an answer for me: Greg, W. W., More Massinger Corrections, call number PR2707 .G7 M7, located on Deck B in the Open Stacks.

So down to the Open Stacks I ran, hoping that this would have the information we were looking for. Fortunately, it did. The opening paragraph of the slim publication reads:

First paragraph of the Greg pamphlet
A mystery solved.

At last we had the source of the manuscript annotation’s attribution. And even more, the verso of the title page of the volume bears a hand-written note:

Gift of Spencer, December 11, 1936
Corroborating evidence.

Gifted by the man who sold the lot to the Folger, bearing the same date as the date of receipt noted on the Acquisitions Office’s cards for all eight plays. It might not be a smoking gun, but it was good enough for me. I could at last declare victory!

Or could I? There is, still, one small mystery remaining. No one seems to know where this mysterious four-digit accession number came from or why it was changed on the Acquisitions Office card and not the Cataloging Office card. I’m afraid that this part will have to remain a mystery, at least for now. I will, however, leave everyone with one final image showing that if you know where to look, you can reunite the group acquisition:

Hamnet record for the Greg pamphlet
Nine items, ordered sequentially, the first starting at 5293…


  • Well done Abbie. Your search inspires me on the other side of the Pacific in Canberra, Australia. Thank you for sharing your inspirational search into the bowels of the Folger. Please give us others when they come to hand.

  • OMG! OMG! I just discovered where the mysterious “5293” in the record for Massinger’s The Bond Man came from and why it was changed on the card! It really IS the accession number (handwritten in a ledger I just found). The person making the card accidentally wrote the accession number the spot for the order number. In retrospect, the accession number for the W.W. Greg pamphlet—5301—was a clue: the eight plays are entered in the accessions ledger as numbers 5293 through 5300. Now to update the Folgerpedia article on accession numbers…..

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