Whoof, it looks like the numbers and letters in this month’s Crocodile Mystery were a bit too cryptic! In this case, the alphanumeric collections are shelf marks. In particular, they are shelf marks from the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library, ca. 1890. And what are they doing in the Folger’s collection? Well, pull up a chair and a cup of tea, because that’s a bit of a tale.
George Greville, 4th Earl of Warwick, assembled a “Shakespeare library,” that is, a collection of books and manuscripts by and about Shakespeare. With the help of noted (and sometimes controversial) Shakespearian scholar and collector James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, Greville spent about two decades assembling a truly impressive collection. Unsurprisingly, this collection was like catnip to Henry Folger, and after Greville died in 1893, Folger worked to secure the library. In 1897 the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library became Henry Folger’s first major purchase of a collection.
Included in the volumes that Folger received is a manuscript that now bears the Folger call number M.b.31, and contains the unassuming title of “A bibliographical catalogue of the books and manuscripts illustrating the life and works of William Shakespeare.”
It wasn’t until I happened to pick up this manuscript that I realize what it was—a manuscript catalog of the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library, ca. 1890. Not only does this catalog capture the contents of the library shortly before Greville’s death, it captures the physical arrangement of the library, via the shelf marks listed in the right hand column of each page.
Shelf mark vs call number?
Now, you may be asking yourself “what’s the difference between a call number and a shelf mark?” And that’s a very valid question—especially since many libraries and librarians will use the terms interchangeably. According to the Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science by Joan M. Reitz, a “shelf mark” is “historically, a mark or code written on or affixed to a manuscript or printed book, indicating its proper physical location in a specific library, precursor of the call number” while a “call number” is “A unique code printed on a label affixed to the outside of an item in a library collection… also printed or handwritten on a label inside the item. Assigned by the cataloger, the call number is also displayed in the bibliographic record that represents the item in the library catalog, to identify the specific copy of the work and give its relative location on the shelf.”
In the case of this catalog for the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library, the shelf marks are very literal indications of where the book was physically shelved. In fact, p.9 of the catalog gives explicit directions “for finding the Books”:
Folger MS M.b.31, p.9 “Directions for finding the Books”
There are three bookcases worth, it explains, divided into a total of seven (7) sections, lettered A through G. Within those sections (probably what we would now call “bays”), each shelf is numbered, starting from the top. So for a book with a shelf mark of G:5, you’d go to the last section of shelving and look on the fifth shelf from the top to find your book. It’s not the most precise system, but for a library of this size, it is perfectly adequate for finding what you’re looking for.
It is also a wonderful record for us to have.
So why do we care? Why is it important that we have this record? The simplest answer is because it’s a moment in time. This catalog tells us not only what was in the library in 1890, but where it was, and what was shelved together. It also tells us what at least one person (the person creating the catalog) thought was important to note about some of the volumes.
For example, the entry for the 1768 edition of Shakespeare collected works (based on Alexander Pope’s edition, and created for Garrick’s 1769 jubilee) notes that it was “Printed in Baskervilles types”:
On the 1684 edition of Julius Caesar, there is a note that “Seven other old Plays of the period, all by Dryden, are bound up in the same volume”:
A rather poignant note on a 1799 edition of Macbeth declares that, despite what the title page might say, “The real Editor was Dr Andrew Hunter of York, who published it for the purpose of assisting Henry Rowe in his long sickness and poverty.”
This last entry also highlights (or rather, faintly marks) another fascinating feature of this manuscript catalog. After receiving the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library into their possession, Henry and Emily Folger annotated it. I’ll pause for your gasps of horror. But it really isn’t terribly horrifying—remember, this catalog was only created about seven years before the Folgers got their hands on it. Librarians regularly annotate catalogs and finding aids to reflect changes and notes about a collection. You can see a great example of that on the original finding aid for the papers of Henry and Emily Folger. The document has been updated by our wonderful archivist, Sara Schliep, but anything you see on that finding aid that is in grey was once a hand-written annotation on the paper finding aid.
The Folgers’ annotations on the Warwick Castle Shakespeare Library catalog range from notes about provenance and rarity (often citing Halliwell-Phillipps’s work with the items):
to physical condition notes, such as this note about the binding of a copy of Q8 of Henry IV, Part I (1632):
to Henry Folger’s ever-present (and slightly obsessive) notes about how his books were packed:
It was this note that actually gave me the final clue I needed to decipher the alphanumeric code from the Crocodile Mystery. Observant readers may have noticed that while there were three characters in each code, the “Directions for finding the Books” only mentioned the first two.
So what is that third number indicating? At first, I thought it might be linear feet, i.e. the width of the book, to indicate how much space it takes up on the shelf. And in some instances that is plausible, but in others, it makes no sense. Then I thought it might be placement along the shelf (i.e. 4” from the lefthand edge of the shelf) as a further location marker. But there were too many instances where the code was identical. Then I found this entry and realized that Henry Folger and his Case Numbers had come back to haunt me once again.
As far as I can tell, Henry Folger annotated the whole catalog, indicating what case (shipping crate) each item was packed in. There are still some questions that remain: some of these case numbers have a single (‘) or double (“) tick after the number, while others have none at all. I don’t know whether these numbers were added based on a packing list from whomever did the packing on-site at Warwick Castle or whether they were added as the Folgers UNpacked the material upon receipt (tho I suspect the latter). I am in the process of transcribing these entries into a sortable spreadsheet, and once I finish, I hope that being able to sort and manipulate the data will give us further insights into both how the collection was arranged in Warwick Castle and what Henry Folger’s annotations on each entry mean.
A Final Note
I only had a few reference photos of this item, from various times I’ve worked with the manuscript over the years. The bulk of my research for this post was done with the digitized microfilm images of it. The additional access these digitized microfilms have provided has been invaluable both to staff and researchers during our building renovation closure. But in this case, it does highlight one of the challenges of working with microfilm: those all-important shelf marks that started this whole post? They are barely visible in the microfilm.
A good reminder, once again, that digital access is not always preservation, and that when possible, physical items may need to be consulted.
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