One day last spring, Gail Kern Paster got a call from Folger trustee emeritus Albert H. Small. A rare book and manuscript collector for more than 50 years, Small had just returned from a special tour of the British Library where he’d seen something that excited even this long-time bibliophile. Small described a new software device that allowed visitors to virtually “turn the pages” of a rare text. Wouldn’t it be great, he said, if the Folger could apply this technology to one of its own treasures—say, a First Folio?
Small’s vision—supplemented by a generous gift from him and his wife Shirley and a partnership with the Library of Congress—was realized in early 2007 when the cabinetry and software are installed in the Great Hall of the library. A copy of the 1623 First Folio (one of 79 in the Folger collection) has long been on permanent display there. Secured in a Plexiglas case and by necessity open to just one page, the rare volume has been untouchable and frustratingly out of reach. The new page-by-page software will now allow users to touch an image of a page on a computer screen and virtually turn it, seeing virtual page after page lift and turn before their eyes. Suddenly, static books reveal hidden interiors, and museum-goers can, for an instant, share the bibliophile’s passion and the research scholar’s privilege of access—without endangering the fragile pages of a rare book.
Paster notes that the new display will feature the First Folio’s captivating front matter and one play chosen to represent Shakespeare’s work—that perennial favorite, Romeo and Juliet. More than a simple reproduction, each page will also offer additional information on 17th-century typography and spelling, for example, as well as rich interpretive notes on the text. “With the complementary features of this software as customized for us, the visitor will learn a great deal about this important book and, by extension, about other early printed books,” says Paster. “This is a magnificent gift that will ensure that future generations will be able to touch, at least virtually, this timeless treasure.”
Reprinted from the Folger Magazine, spring 2007.