In the second part of his series revealing the hidden treasures which will soon find a home at the city’s new library, Graeme Brown examines the Birmingham Shakespeare Library
It was the collection that pride built – and not even a raging fire could halt its progress.
The Birmingham Shakespeare Library was formed in 1864 through a desire to put the Midlands’ favourite son at the heart of education.
Fifteen years later the passion behind that civic pride was tested when a fire at the library destroyed all but 500 of the 7,000-strong collection – but it returned stronger.
Today, Birmingham Central Library holds one of the world’s largest collections of material about William Shakespeare, including 46,000 books, editions in 93 different languages and sought-after copies of the first four folios of the Bard’s work.
The original inspiration for the collection came from minister George Dawson, along with a group who believed strongly in the Bard and the role his work could play in the intellectual lives of Birmingham’s citizens.
It has gone on to gain an international standing, with people travelling from as far as China and Japan to see it. During the Cold War, Iron Curtain restrictions were relaxed to allow donations to the library.
Librarian Lucy Kamenova, who is in charge of the Shakespeare collection, said: “What makes it special to me is the way it was founded. It was all about having pride in the literary heritage of the region and enthusiasm for education.
“A lot of prominent Birmingham citizens saw the donation of books and money as an expression of civil and political responsibility.
“There are many different reasons – the collection is comprehensive as to Shakespeare’s collected work, but there is also a variety of production material.”
She added: “It has rightly been claimed this is one of the biggest and best Shakespeare collections in the UK and internationally. It compares to the Folger Library in Washington.”
The collection not only includes tens of thousands of books, but also some of the most important criticism, production photos, playbills and reviews, as well as music pieces and illustrations.
There are some rare private press editions and illustrations by Salvador Dali, Oskar Kokoschka, Arthur Rackham and many others.
The reaction to the fire at the library on January 11, 1879, provides a special addition to the collection’s story.
Local people ran to the library to save what books they could – including the Lord Mayor, but the collection, which had at that stage been built up to 7,000 volumes, had been decimated.
When it re-opened, more than a fifth of the books had been donated – and the collection was larger than ever.
Ms Kamenova said: “They had about 1,000 books when they opened the Shakespeare Collection in 1864 but there was a big fire at the library in 1879 and only about 500 survived in the collection.
“The thing that was so impressive was the public response. The mayor was here rescuing books and there were many donations from this city and beyond – particularly Germany and France – to replace the books.
“When the Shakespeare Library re-opened in the 1880s there were more books than before.”
The Memoirs of The Royal Shakespeare Library reveal there were donations from even further afield, notably the Indian government and a Japanese student who became fascinated by the collection while studying in Birmingham and sent 33 volumes.
Indeed, not even the Iron Curtain could stop its growth, with the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, Robert Vansittart, sending out an order to his officers to search for books.
Ms Kamenova said: “In the 1930s the Foreign Office instructed its officers across the world to search for Shakespeare volumes on behalf of the collection.
“Even during the Cold War they were prepared to go around restrictions to access material in countries in Eastern Europe by arranging exchanges.”
Perhaps the best-known item in the collection is the first folio. Published in 1623 – seven years after his death, it is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
It was gathered together and edited from the best available texts by two of Shakespeare’s friends, actors John Heminge and Henry Condell.
Ms Kamenova said: “The indication is that he left a small amount of money to these actors in his will and they collected together all of the plays.”
She added: “It is thought there are about 240 surviving copies of the folio.
“Originally there were about 1,100.”
The library also holds the second, third and fourth folios – and like most of the more expensive items in the collection they were purchased with donations from some of Birmingham’s brightest lights.
The collection was inspired by Mr Dawson along with esteemed businessmen, ministers and scholars.
It was created after a proposal was made in the Aris’s Birmingham Gazette that the library should contain “every edition and every translation of Shakespeare, all the commentators, good, bad and indifferent. In short, every book connected with the life and works of our great poet.”
Ms Kamenova said: “The library was formed on the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1864 and the initial proposal for the Shakespeare collection came from George Dawson in 1861.
“He was a preacher, a religious man and a liberal reformer. He was preaching in the church which was attended by people like Henry Chamberlain and Shakespeare scholar Samuel Timmins.
“He was preaching about things like political ethics and free education and more libraries.”
The most valuable parts of the collection are the three Quarto editions, which were published in 1619 – although they are dated falsely to appear earlier.
“They were done illegally in a way, without Shakespeare’s permission, but funnily enough were published by the same printer as the folios,” Ms Kamenova said.
The history of the Shakespeare collection being established is documented in The Memoirs of The Royal Shakespeare Library, held at the library, which also shows invitations to meetings, appeals, and reports of an international band of donors.
The collection also contains a copy of Othello belonging to Welsh actress Sarah Siddons, noted as the best-known tragedienne of the 18th century.
It is complete with notes and prompts for personal performances – some infront of Royalty.