Bibliographical Society Petition Key in Preventing Senate House Sale: A Statement from the President

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Bibliographical Society is delighted that the University of London has announced that it is abandoning the proposed sale of four of its Shakespeare Folios. I would like to thank everyone involved in the campaign to raise awareness of the sale, and all those who signed the online petition.

Sales from libraries are not by definition wrong, but in this instance the proposal was founded on a number of erroneous assumptions:

  • That the folios could be classed as ‘duplicates’.
  • That they were not of major academic interest.
  • That they were not central to the core collections at Senate House.
  • That the intentions of their donor could or should be overridden.

The Louis Sterling Library was gifted to the University of London in 1956 with specific stipulations that it should be permanently housed there as a named special collection, and that the books should be regarded as the nucleus of the University of London’s rare book collections. In this context, it is difficult to see how the removal of the folios and their consignment to Bonhams to be sold could be married in any way with the intentions of the original donor. 

The Society felt strongly that the University of London’s approach to the sale was misguided, but also that decisions were made under a veil of secrecy and without adequate consultation. If libraries must sell material, then a transparent and open process is essential. Had the University of London consulted from the outset, perhaps this very public and potentially damaging disagreement could have been avoided.

The online petition played a significant part in emphasising the level of unease about the sale, garnering signatures from a wide array of influential academics and bibliographers, students and members of the public. The wonders of social media allowed us to secure 2741 signatures from no fewer than 39 countries, including Armenia, Australia, Bulgaria, Finland, Hong Kong, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Malta, Mozambique, New Zealand, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Taiwan, and Tajikistan. A few examples provide a flavour of the tone:

“Despite being in the book trade, and having previously dealt a First Folio and currently holding a Third, we believe that such copies as remain in public hands should continue to do so.”

“The proposal to sell these volumes affects the ability of Senate House Library to claim to be a research library of the highest quality and will certainly discourage any future benefactors.”

“To sell the Shakespeare Folios would obviate the intentions of the original benefactor. Those proposing the sale have not given sufficient thought to the implications, not only for Senate House Library but for public confidence in the integrity of historic book collections everywhere.”

The Society hopes that other libraries will observe the reaction and consider carefully both the morality of such sales, and the means by which they should be undertaken.

Yours sincerely,

Christine Ferdinand
President