On the sixth floor of Francis Harvey Green Library in a small reading room surrounded by thousands of old books ranging from topics on philosophy to old Dutch cookie recipes sits Kelli Billings. She opens one of her books, prepares her pen and paper and gets to work. This has been all Billings has known for the last few months as she set out to create her debut exhibit as a library assistant at West Chester University’s Special Collections to commemorate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s First Folio, the first collected edition of the famous playwright’s plays.
Many First Folios were published in 1623, but only about 30% of them still survive. According to Billings, “Fewer than 250 copies are known to survive, each one lauded as a priceless literary jewel.” This exhibit goes into a range of topics pertaining to the past, present, production and preservation of the First Folios, but focuses heavily on the people responsible for keeping these remarkable artifacts of history in a condition that allows them to be enjoyed by countless students and scholars for years to come. From how the folios themselves were constructed, how they traveled around the world and how this particular copy of the First Folio came into West Chester University’s possession, this exhibit curated by Billings delves deep into a unique area of study that many may not know about.
While interviewing Billings, we asked her about what surprised her most as she was researching this complex history. She learned how, even hundreds of years ago, people understood the significance and importance of preserving the folios and this is why people were invested in photographing these artifacts as early as the 1860s.
Billings explains, “the first photograph copy happened so early in the 1860s that there was a digital [reproduction] the way we use it now, but essentially a digitized copy of the folio. [These reproductions were] made because people sensed that there’s only a few and the more we use them all, the more damage they are going to get, so here’s a way to kind of preserve it. It was this idea of preservation of the originals that happened way earlier and this surprised me.”
Autumn Bruce: As of writing this review, I am mere weeks away from graduating. I am both anxious and wary of what the future holds for me as I know the possibilities are endless, but I know my four years here at West Chester have equipped me for what lies ahead. I have been taught many things here at this remarkable institution but what I will always cherish are my times at the WCU Special Collections, where I got to see up close and personal glorious, materialized memories of history. The countless books, letters, photographs, and other artifacts preserved in WCU Special Collections by Ron McColl, Jenna Bossert and Kelli Billings are incredible pieces of history. One of the crown jewels of this collection is the First Folio and through the hard work of Billings and the Special Collections team, it can be adored by people for years to come.
Alexis Stakem: As someone who studied Shakespeare throughout high school English, much to my own chagrin, I had never given much thought to the preservation of his plays. What was even more surprising was the complex network of individuals who assisted in the dissemination and creation of the First Folio. The choice to include those who preserved his plays in this exhibition highlights the individuals who do not have the same level of name recognition as the playwright, and furthers an even more nuanced point about the impact of Shakespeare’s works. There is not one direction to move in when covering the history of the folio; experts’ interests lie in the economic viability of the folio production, the process of paper construction, basic philanthropy, the presence and symbolism of the botany described in Shakespeare’s plays, among other even more niche interests. All of these individuals maintain a vested interest in the folio and its survival, yet come from a variety of different fields, not only English and history.
The exhibit reminds and teaches individuals of the wide, ever-encroaching impact of Shakespeare and his writings; he lives on in every corner of the world, passionately fueling a twenty page long research paper on a topic very few others have contemplated. Piecing together the individuals a part of every field of study brings forth a more complete tapestry containing the history and influence of the folio. Shakespeare, however impossible to believe, has cast a large net and reaped an even more devoted base of enthusiasts, and they are not all derived from the most prominent areas of study, they come from all areas of expertise and it is beautiful.
The exhibition “A Great Variety of Readers: Celebrating 400 Years of Shakespeare’s First Folio” is on display outside WCU Special Collections from April 2023 until early fall semester on the 6th floor of the Francis Harvey Green Libraries, a part of WCU’s University Libraries.
Alexis Stakem is a first-year Social Work major. AS996397@wcupa.edu.
Autumn Bruce is a fourth-year History major with a minor in Journalism. AB930766@wcupa.edu