The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Shakespeare to exit the vault

In the canon of Western literature, William Shakespeare’s First Folio is “the jewel of our house.” Published by the playwright’s colleagues in 1623, just a few years after his death, this extraordinary book contains 36 plays and is the sole source for such immortal works as “Macbeth,” “The Tempest” and “As You Like It.” Without the First Folio, our theater, our culture, our very language would be incalculably impoverished.

Remarkably, 82 First Folios — about a third of the copies believed to exist — are housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. For decades, scholars have traveled here to study these rare books in the library’s environmentally controlled vault, deep underground.

But now the Folger has announced an ambitious plan to set the books free. To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616, the library will loan a First Folio to every state in the union, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“We do things that are vital for scholars all the time,” says the Folger’s director, Michael Witmore. “But this is the one that will have the greatest impact on the public.”

To insure that as many people as possible have a chance to see this traveling exhibit, the organizers are encouraging libraries, museums, historical societies and other cultural venues to apply to host a free four-week display in their state or territory. (Applications are due Sept. 5, 2014.) The express purpose of this program is to reach an audience beyond scholars — or billionaire collectors like Paul Allen, who bought a First Folio in 2001 for more than $6 million. “We want people to see this book, who could not have seen it without this initiative,” Witmore says.

Already two years in the making, the 2016 exhibit is a complex collaboration with the American Library Association and Cincinnati Museum Center, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“Just seeing this book travel around the country,” Witmore says, “will reinforce thinking about the importance of books, the importance of this writer and the deep sense of access that we can still have. Shakespeare has been a kind of ‘thought companion’ for us as a country.”

But moving tens of millions of dollars of rare books around the United States for a year sounds like a risk that would make any rare book conservator cry “strange screams of death.” Aren’t these First Folios “beauty too rich for use”?

No, says the Folger’s exhibitions manager, Caryn Lazzuri. “We’re not preserving these things just so they can be closed in a basement for the next 400 years. We’re a private research institution, but we’re also a public institution. We’re taking these books outside of the vault, and we’re sharing them with people, which is central to the mission of just about every library I can think of.”

In the next breath, she admits, “The logistics of it are a little bit intense. We have not done anything this big before.”

That challenge is heightened by the ALA’s determination to involve venues that have never displayed a multimillion-dollar treasure before. “We really don’t know at this point what kind of institutions are going to apply and what their display situations will be like,” Lazzuri says. “A public place like a community college or public library would be ideal, but they may not be able to meet our requirements. An academic library would have the right conditions, but may not draw the public in. We’re sort of hoping to have a mix of places.”

To be selected as a host site, organizations must propose a series of Shakespeare-related programs for scholars and the public in their own communities. Beyond that, they must demonstrate an ability to keep the book safe. The Folger will help by providing insurance, a specially designed case and curatorial instructions. Each site must have professional guards present whenever the venue is open to the public, and specific environmental conditions must be maintained: 65 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, 45 to 52 percent humidity and relatively low light.

Over the course of 2016, 18 First Folios will be transported around the country by the Cincinnati Museum Center, which is also helping to design a set of large panels that explain the significance of Shakespeare and “this most goodly book.”

In each venue, the folio will be opened to Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy. “We considered a couple of different plays,” Lazzuri says, “but ‘Hamlet’ is so well known, and that speech is one of the most taught passages.” It also makes for a fascinating presentation on variations in the surviving texts: In the 1603 first quarto, for instance, Hamlet says, “To be or not to be; aye, there’s the point.”

Another consideration was identifying enough First Folios in the collection that are travel-ready — something only a library with 82 to choose from could do. The Folger curators looked for copies that could open well to “Hamlet,” act 3, scene 1; that had clear type on the page showing his famous soliloquy; and that didn’t have unique marginalia, which would make the book too valuable to leave the library.

“I’m both excited and nervous about it,” Lazzuri says. “If something goes wrong, it’s probably my fault.”

Don’t worry. As someone once said, “All’s well that ends well.”