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Caring for the First Folio

Emily White

The First Folio is one of the great achievements of the literary world. Published in 1623, seven years after the death of William Shakespeare, it was the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays.

It is believed that approximately 750 copies of the First Folio were published in 1623, and today, there are 235 copies scattered across the world, with three of them in the care of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (SBT).

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One of the copies of the First Folio was on display in The Great Variety of Readers exhibition from April 2023 as part of the SBT’s Folio at 400 celebrations and was removed once the exhibition closed for the final time on Sunday 5 November.

Why Does the Folio Need Removing from Display?

Books, even modern ones, are one of the most difficult types of objects to care for as they are predominantly made of organic materials. These organic materials are highly susceptible to damage caused by certain environmental conditions known as agents of deterioration. These agents of deterioration cause irreversible damage to objects.

What are agents of deterioration?

  • Light
  • Fire
  • Loss
  • Water
  • Physical
  • Chemical
  • Biological
  • Wrong relative humidity
  • Wrong temperature

While some agents of deterioration like fire, water, and physical harm may appear obvious as causes of damage, others are less apparent because their effects accumulate over time. It is critical for curatorial staff to carefully assess all these risks before deciding whether an object can be displayed.

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Displaying the First Folio

Before the Folio left the collection store a full condition assessment was made by a book conservator. During this assessment, each part of the book was assessed. The conservator recommended that only certain sections of the book could be displayed without causing stress to the spine. A new mount, which supports and displays an object, was commissioned to provide the correct amount of physical support for the First Folio. Now the First Folio was correctly physically supported, the collections team were left to consider the other agents of deterioration.

The First Folio is displayed within a hermetically sealed display case. The environment inside the display case was stable and protects the First Folio. One of the trickiest agents of deterioration to protect against is light.

Light causes damage to different materials to varying degrees and at different rates. Paper, textiles, leather, and animal-based glues are all highly susceptible to high levels of light exposure.

Why is light a problem when displaying an object like the First Folio?

Light is radiation - some of it is visible with the human eye but some remains invisible.

When we break light radiation down into measurable units of Lux, UV, and Infrared, we get a better insight into the potential damage the lighting, either natural or artificial, could cause.

Lux – Visible light, a measure of the intensity of visible light in one square metre

UV - Ultra Violet, harmful radiation invisible to the human eye

IR – Infrared, thermal radiation invisible to the human eye

We can measure the light levels using a piece of equipment called a light meter, which reads the different units of light.

What damage can light cause to books?

Light can cause paper to yellow or darken, it can weaken and embrittle the cellulose fibres that make up paper. It can also fade or change the colour of inks and dyes. This visible form of light damage is an indication of physical and chemical deterioration of the structure of the material. Sadly, light damage is cumulative and irreversible. Our team managed the risk of light damage by controlling the level of light within the display case by employing different methods of control.

Methods for controlling light levels

  • Lowering light levels

We lowered the level of light inside the case to a level that balanced the needs of the visitor experience with the lowest possible exposure for the objects inside the case

  • Page turning

We can lower a book’s exposure to light by turning its pages according to an agreed schedule. It is important that the residual light exposure is even as it not only lowers the risk of harm but also ensures that a particular page isn’t adversely affected over other pages. This is something we did throughout the exhibition run at regular intervals.

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  • Rest periods

We agreed the opening hours and the length of the exhibition, according to the amount of time the First Folio can be exposed to the residual light.

Now it has been removed, the First Folio has been placed inside a custom designed box and will return to one of our collection stores. The SBT’s collection stores are environmentally controlled to ensure they provide the best possible environment for, not only the First Folio, but for over one million objects in our care.

To cancel out the exposure to light and agents of deterioration, the First Folio will be rested for five years. This simply means that this special book will remain in our store for a certain period, away from light and physical handling or display.

With these measures we will be able to share the First Folio with our visitors in 400 years from now.

You can discover more about Shakespeare’s First Folio and Shakespeare’s works on Shakespedia.

Emily White is Curator at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust