The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library

Whoof, it looks like the numbers and letters in this month’s Crocodile Mystery were a bit too cryptic! In this case, the alphanumeric collections are shelf marks. In particular, they are shelf marks from the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library, ca. 1890. And what are they doing in the Folger’s collection? Well, pull up a chair and a cup of tea, because that’s a bit of a tale.

George Greville, 4th Earl of Warwick, assembled a “Shakespeare library,” that is, a collection of books and manuscripts by and about Shakespeare. With the help of noted (and sometimes controversial) Shakespearian scholar and collector James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, Greville spent about two decades assembling a truly impressive collection. Unsurprisingly, this collection was like catnip to Henry Folger, and after Greville died in 1893, Folger worked to secure the library. In 1897 the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library became Henry Folger’s first major purchase of a collection.

Included in the volumes that Folger received is a manuscript that now bears the Folger call number M.b.31, and contains the unassuming title of “A bibliographical catalogue of the books and manuscripts illustrating the life and works of William Shakespeare.”

cover of a large book bound in dark green leather, with gold lettering that reads "Warwick Castle Library Catalogue of the Shakespearian Collection"
Front cover of Folger MS M.b.31

It wasn’t until I happened to pick up this manuscript that I realize what it was—a manuscript catalog of the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library, ca. 1890. Not only does this catalog capture the contents of the library shortly before Greville’s death, it captures the physical arrangement of the library, via the shelf marks listed in the right hand column of each page.

Shelf mark vs call number?

Now, you may be asking yourself “what’s the difference between a call number and a shelf mark?” And that’s a very valid question—especially since many libraries and librarians will use the terms interchangeably. According to the Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science by Joan M. Reitz, a “shelf mark” is “historically, a mark or code written on or affixed to a manuscript or printed book, indicating its proper physical location in a specific library, precursor of the call number” while a “call number” is “A unique code printed on a label affixed to the outside of an item in a library collection… also printed or handwritten on a label inside the item. Assigned by the cataloger, the call number is also displayed in the bibliographic record that represents the item in the library catalog, to identify the specific copy of the work and give its relative location on the shelf.”

In the case of this catalog for the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library, the shelf marks are very literal indications of where the book was physically shelved. In fact, p.9 of the catalog gives explicit directions “for finding the Books”:

Folger MS M.b.31, p.9 “Directions for finding the Books”

There are three bookcases worth, it explains, divided into a total of seven (7) sections, lettered A through G. Within those sections (probably what we would now call “bays”), each shelf is numbered, starting from the top. So for a book with a shelf mark of G:5, you’d go to the last section of shelving and look on the fifth shelf from the top to find your book. It’s not the most precise system, but for a library of this size, it is perfectly adequate for finding what you’re looking for.

It is also a wonderful record for us to have.

So what?

So why do we care? Why is it important that we have this record? The simplest answer is because it’s a moment in time. This catalog tells us not only what was in the library in 1890, but where it was, and what was shelved together. It also tells us what at least one person (the person creating the catalog) thought was important to note about some of the volumes.

For example, the entry for the 1768 edition of Shakespeare collected works (based on Alexander Pope’s edition, and created for Garrick’s 1769 jubilee) notes that it was “Printed in Baskervilles types”:

handwritten catalog entry for a 1768 edition of Shakespeare's works
Folger MS M.b.31 p.23

On the 1684 edition of Julius Caesar, there is a note that “Seven other old Plays of the period, all by Dryden, are bound up in the same volume”:

Handwritten catalog entry showing a 1684 edition of Julius Caesar
Folger MS M.b.31, p.71

A rather poignant note on a 1799 edition of Macbeth declares that, despite what the title page might say, “The real Editor was Dr Andrew Hunter of York, who published it for the purpose of assisting Henry Rowe in his long sickness and poverty.”

handwritten catalog entry showing a 1768 edition of Macbeth
Folger MS M.b.31, p.89

Folger’s Annotations

This last entry also highlights (or rather, faintly marks) another fascinating feature of this manuscript catalog. After receiving the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library into their possession, Henry and Emily Folger annotated it. I’ll pause for your gasps of horror. But it really isn’t terribly horrifying—remember, this catalog was only created about seven years before the Folgers got their hands on it. Librarians regularly annotate catalogs and finding aids to reflect changes and notes about a collection. You can see a great example of that on the finding aid for the papers of Henry and Emily Folger. The document has been updated by our wonderful archivist, Sara Schliep, but anything you see on that finding aid that is in grey was once a hand-written annotation on the paper finding aid.

The Folgers’ annotations on the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library catalog range from notes about provenance and rarity (often citing Halliwell-Phillipps’s work with the items):

handwritten catalog entry with additional notes in another handwriting
Folger MS M.b.31, p.39, entry for a copy of The twins, or, Which is which? (an 18th c farce based on Comedy of Errors), with Henry Folger’s note that it was “Jolley’s copy” and that it was “‘A very scarce alteration’ Halliwell’s note”

to physical condition notes, such as this note about the binding of a copy of Q8 of Henry IV, Part I (1632):

handwritten catalog entry with additional note in a second handwriting
Folger MS M.b.31, p.53, Emily Folger’s note that the red morocco binding on this quarto is “by Bedford”.

to Henry Folger’s ever-present (and slightly obsessive) notes about how his books were packed:

handwritten catalog entry with second handwriting making an additional very faint note
Folger MS M.b.31, p.45. Henry Folger’s (very faint) note that there are “2 copies, 1 in case 8.”

It was this note that actually gave me the final clue I needed to decipher the alphanumeric code from the Crocodile Mystery. Observant readers may have noticed that while there were three characters in each code, the “Directions for finding the Books” only mentioned the first two.

So what is that third number indicating? At first, I thought it might be linear feet, i.e. the width of the book, to indicate how much space it takes up on the shelf. And in some instances that is plausible, but in others, it makes no sense. Then I thought it might be placement along the shelf (i.e. 4” from the lefthand edge of the shelf) as a further location marker. But there were too many instances where the code was identical. Then I found this entry and realized that Henry Folger and his Case Numbers had come back to haunt me once again.

As far as I can tell, Henry Folger annotated the whole catalog, indicating what case (shipping crate) each item was packed in. There are still some questions that remain: some of these case numbers have a single (‘) or double (“) tick after the number, while others have none at all. I don’t know whether these numbers were added based on a packing list from whomever did the packing on-site at Warwick Castle or whether they were added as the Folgers UNpacked the material upon receipt (tho I suspect the latter). I am in the process of transcribing these entries into a sortable spreadsheet, and once I finish, I hope that being able to sort and manipulate the data will give us further insights into both how the collection was arranged in Warwick Castle and what Henry Folger’s annotations on each entry mean.

A Final Note

I only had a few reference photos of this item, from various times I’ve worked with the manuscript over the years. The bulk of my research for this post was done with the digitized microfilm images of it. The additional access these digitized microfilms have provided has been invaluable both to staff and researchers during our building renovation closure. But in this case, it does highlight one of the challenges of working with microfilm: those all-important shelf marks that started this whole post? They are barely visible in the microfilm.

side by side images of the same manuscript page; on the left the image from microfilm with very faint writing in places; on the right a color image from a cell phone
Folger MS M.b.31, p.377
Left: microfilm image
Right: cell phone image

A good reminder, once again, that digital access is not always preservation, and that when possible, physical items may need to be consulted.


  • Abbie, this was a labor of love. Henry Folger did not possess the loot to make this first en bloc purchase of his long buying career. He turned once again to his Amherst roommate Charles M. Pratt who gave conditional agreement: “Tell Folger he may have the money provided he will agree to invite me to his house to dinner for a private lecture on the [Warwick] collection.”

    • A well-spent meal and lecture I’d say! Thank you for this tid-bit, Stephen! (This is the perils of trying to write a post like this with only some of our materials accessible!)

  • I love that you mention the difference between a shelfmark and a call number. That’s one of those geeky library things that I didn’t really understand when I was a grad student. I thought it was just a difference between UK and US vocabulary, but a shelfmark takes you to a specific shelf, and a call number takes you to a shelf where items have adjacent call numbers. You have to rely on signage to get you to the general area where those things can be found.

    Folger Trivia: although the catalog (and staff) refer to them as “call numbers,” objects in the Folger collection have accession number (which never changes, but has no relationship to where the object is stored) and a shelfmark (which names the glass display shelf or wooden cabinet where the object can* be found; the shelfmark can change as things move around in cases to make room for additions). For example, the “A3d” in ART 241266 (realia) (A3d) means that this enamel box with a portrait of David Garrick as Ranger is/was in the upper set of shelving (“A” for “Above” versus “B” for “Below”), in the 3rd case from the left, on the 4th shelf from the top.

    *Currently, shelfmarks name where the objects used to be. They’ve all been packed up safely and put in storage while the building undergoes major renovations.

  • Erin, so does that mean the difference is essentially to do with the people who are meant to use them, i.e. shelfmarks are intended for the use of readers to navigate open shelves and call numbers are used when there are stacks or restricted areas that items can be called up from (but that aren’t directly accessible by the average library user), so they’re mainly intended for the use of the librarians who go down to the stacks to hunt for the item?
    Having said that my old college library used shelfmarks that had basically become call numbers, because the library had outgrown the shelves decades earlier, so books were sometimes located in completely different bays to the ones indicated on the shelves…;)

    • The difference isn’t so much who needs to find the books as whether the collection grows by interfiling new books in their correct relative position (by author, subject, or other classification system) or whether the collection grows by adding books to new shelves. Typically, open-stacks collections use a classification system (to make browsing easier), but there’s no reason an open-stacks library couldn’t use shelfmarks instead.

      At the Folger, we only have one growing vault collection that continues to be shelved by classification, and that’s the STC Collection, which is shelved by “STC number” (or, for books not found in A short-title catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland, & Ireland and of English books printed abroad, 1475-1640, by what the STC number would have been if they’d been known to the editors). In theory, this means shelving in author order, and by publication date within each author. (Warning: now that I’ve pasted a link to the STC collection in the Folger catalog, I see that several books are mis-coded as being in English, so they’re being picked up by the search algorithm by mistake. Guess what I’ll be doing the rest of the afternoon!)

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