The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0436 Thursday, 5 September 2013
Date: Thursday, September 5, 2013
Subject: Dispersal of Shakespeare Folios Protest Petition and Professor Woudhuysen’s Letter
And I received from Professor Woudhuysen permission to reproduce his letter of protest:
Oxford OX1 3DR
From the Rector
Professor H.R. Woudhuysen FBA
Tel direct line: 01865 279772
Tel Office: 01865 279804
30 August 2013
Dear Mr Pressler
You kindly wrote to ask whether I would be willing ‘to support the University’s actions’ in seeking to sell four Folios from the Sterling bequest and sent me various documents intended to explain the University’s reasons for doing this. I have read the documents carefully and, although I am grateful and flattered to have been shown them at this point in the process, I have come to the conclusion that I am not able to offer the support that you seek and that I am entirely against any such move. You say you do not ‘feel that there will be substantial opposition’ to the sale; I do not think that this will be the case and, as a supporter of research libraries, as someone deeply interested in books and their histories, and as a Shakespeare scholar, I shall do all that I can – publically and privately – to prevent any such sale. I have opposed other ‘disposals’ of this kind through the Bibliographical Society (of which I should shortly become a Vice-President) and through articles for The Times Literary Supplement and shall do the same – and more – with the Sterling Folios if the University decides to go ahead with the sale.
The arguments against such ‘disposals’ are well rehearsed and should be familiar to you, but the documents that you have sent me to do not answer them directly, show a failure to understand simple bibliographical methods, and are evasive about several important matters. It would be a relatively easy task to go point by point through the documents that you have sent me indicating misunderstandings, lack of clarity, and contradictions in them. If I were writing a full response to them, I would concentrate on: the question of the University’s moral right to sell these books; on the nature and intentions of Sterling’s original gift (what he meant by ‘permanently housed in the University library’); why the Folios are not in any sense ‘duplicates’ (certainly not ‘essentially duplicates’) whose ‘academic value … is small’; that the UK copies of the First Folio have received very little bibliographical attention and the subsequent Folios almost none at all; and I would want to dig a little deeper into the argument that they are ‘rarely accessed by users’. I would want to have a better and clearer explanation of the University’s handling of the ‘two Sterling Library Capital Funds’ and of how they relate to Sterling’s original substantial financial endowment (see the entry for him in ODNB), the larger library, and the University’s overall research expenditure. If ‘From 2000 onwards, with one exception, this figure [expenditure on special collections] has been pegged at £10,000’, I would want to know from where the £25,000 for the purchase of the Auden MS came. I am also curious as to what the force of ‘pegged’ is in that statement. In addition, I would want a much clearer explanation of how if National Research Library funding were restored by the government, ‘the funding available’ would be shared ‘between the qualifying libraries on the basis of footfall’.
Turning to other matters, the documents state that ‘The University has reviewed the whole of its historic collections and also the Sterling Library’; I would like to see this review if I may and I would like to see the research and reports that must have gone into the formulation of the proposed collecting policy of ‘acquiring major works and archives of 20th Century and 21st Century English literature’ or of ‘modern and contemporary authors in the English language’. As your research and reports would, I am sure, show, this is one of the most competitive, complex, and sought-after markets for contemporary collectors and I would want to be reassured that Senate House currently has the expertise and experience to buy wisely in this field: if it has not, then will a new appointment be sought and if so, how will this be financed? I have to say that listing incunabula ‘with an English imprint or provenance; more precisely, a London imprint’ among the material that it is proposed to add to the Sterling Library does not indicate a great deal of knowledge of the market for such items. Equally, the examples of material that might have been acquired at the Roy Davids sale (handled, of course, by Bonhams) all date from the 19th century and indicate a degree of confusion about what the primary area for new acquisitions is to be – the Davids sale, by the way, was, as most dealers and collectors would agree, sui generis in a number of ways.
There seems to be some uncertainty about how much the four Folios are expected to fetch: this is described as being ‘between £3m and £5m’ or ‘£3.5m to £4m’. What plan has been developed in case they do not sell? Would they then be sold separately and split up after being together since at least the 1830s? I would want to know for certain that such a sale of the Folios really ‘would mean never needing to realise such an asset again’. I would want to be assured that the effect of the proposed sale on future donors and funding bodies (not least the Friends of the National Libraries) has been fully explored at national and international levels. The question about the effect the ‘disposal’ might have on future bequests is simply ducked and the stated wish ‘firmly to establish Senate House Library as a destination for world scholars’ betrays an extraordinary lack of confidence about the current status of the Library. I would want to know what work and what research have been done into alternative strategies for increasing the endowment for special collections and for disseminating information about their richness and importance.
As to the process behind the sale, it is clear from the documents that the timetable for it has already been established. Bonhams have been appointed to sell the Folios, which will ‘be touring four American cities (New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco) and Hong Kong during September and October’. ‘The auction date is currently scheduled for’ 12 November 2013 and is intended be part of what is described as ‘The UK’s most prestigious book auction’ (other auction houses might find this idea unusual); ‘this is the date the Trustees would wish to be able to sell the four Folios’. The Trustees seem to have decided on committing themselves to the sale, yet in your email message to me you state that you would like my views ‘before we go into a public consultation on this proposal’. I would be interested to know how these two approaches can be reconciled and what the nature of the ‘public consultation’ will be.
A full response to your message and the attached documents would ask all these and many more questions. On the basis of the documents that I have seen, it seems to me that the sale and its implications have not been thought through properly and that the Trustees have already taken a decision to sell the books through Bonhams, making any public consultation merely decorative. The decision will, I hope, attract a great deal of opposition from supporters of Senate House and if executed, it will, I fear, make many who are supporters of the library and possible donors to it turn their charitable interests elsewhere. Libraries that sell books attract not just controversy but close scrutiny of the ways in which they are run. The rationale for the sale is muddled and prompts questions about the current management of the collections. Basing the sale of major assets on a complete failure to recognise their cultural and bibliographical significance does not augur well for using the proceeds of such a sale (if they materialise) to purchase material from this most volatile and unstable end of the market. The new areas for collecting that are being proposed indicate to me, at least, a very basic lack of knowledge about and experience of collection development.
I am sorry to write about this initiative in such negative terms and would be happy when I am back in the UK to talk at greater length to you and to Roger about why I think this move is wrong. Since you marked the documents you sent me as ‘Highly Confidential’, I shall not show them to anyone else, but I would like to reserve the right to make this response available to other parties and to use this and the information in the documents to try to stop the sale.