Adopting Shakespeare at Folger Shakespeare Library

Once a year, the Folger Shakespeare Library assembles all its new acquisitions and lays them out for display. It's a rare chance to peruse some extremely precious (and sometimes arcane) documents.

On March 19 -- "Acquisitions Night" -- 165 well-heeled book collectors and enthusiasts paid $100 for a privilege usually reserved only for scholars. They moved quietly but determinedly from table to table in the dark-paneled Old Reading Room, examining little etchings, letters, advertisements, books and even receipts. Nothing's behind glass; there's no standing on the other side of a velvet rope. "Would you like to feel the paper?" one of the attendants asked, holding out a 400-year-old note.

(Erica Abbey/Folger Shakespeare Library)

The importance of some of these documents -- a map of London from 1660, just before the city burned -- is obvious. Others, such as an inventory of some unknown farmer's livestock in Northumberland, require a scholar's knowledge to value. (Only about a quarter of the Folger's collection is now directly related to Shakespeare.)

What gives the evening an extra frisson of excitement is that all these documents are up for "adoption." And they go fast; little "Adopted" flags started appearing on the tables almost as soon as the doors opened. Curators hovered around, answering questions, and guiding donors to the front desk (check or charge; fully deductible). Prices ranged from $250 (a 1855 playbill from the Cleveland Theatre) to $69,340 (that 1660 map of London, one of only two extant in the world). A bookplate will identify each adopter in perpetuity. By the end of the night, the library had raised about $40,000.

(Erica Abbey/Folger Shakespeare Library)

At the far end of the Old Reading room, a half dozen conservators in white lab coats were on hand to explain the Folger's high-tech restoration work. (The Library's laboratory has trained about 80 conservators around the world.) Frank Mowery, the head of conservation, described some of his most harrowing techniques. He pointed to a large volume of "Storia di Casa Medici" that's literally eating itself up -- "Turning your books to graves," as the Bard wrote. To stop the acidic "iron gall nut ink" from consuming the paper further, each page must be painstakingly split in half; lens paper is inserted in between, and then the sides are closed up. Holes are filled with paper pulp, a process called "leaf casting." All this takes about a week.... and there are millions of pages to go, here and at the Library of Congress next door.

The race against decay sounds hopeless, but Mowery is energized by the challenge and encouraged by donors like these. For 15 years, he's been working on a revolutionary machine that might reduce the page-splitting process to five minutes.

"The heavens speed thee in thine enterprise!"

-- Ron Charles

By Ron Charles |  March 25, 2009; 1:01 PM ET Ron Charles
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This event sounds divine. And they do this every year? I will have to get there.

Posted by: choirgirl04 | March 25, 2009 10:09 AM

Yes, it's an annual event, though this was my first year.

Posted by: ronchar | March 25, 2009 11:30 AM

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