Crowdfunding then and now: saving Shakespeare’s First Folio ‘for the nation’ and sharing it with the world

Two public fund-raising campaigns around the Bodleian Library’s copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, separated by a century, provide more than an intriguing historical parallel. They show how digital technologies have made it possible for people all over the world not only to donate to a cause, but also to benefit directly from its outcome: here, experiencing for themselves the wonder of a rare and precious volume.

A ‘Superfluous Library Booke’? The history of the First Folio

Shakespeare First Folio

The Bodleian’s copy of the First Folio (Bodleian Arch. G c.7). Librarians in 1905 recognised it by its binding (the work of one William Wildgoose) and the marks where the chain had been attached. Reproduced by courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries

In the winter of 1623, a copy of Shakespeare’s newly printed First Folio arrived in Oxford, and was bound and secured with a chain at the Arts End of Duke Humfrey’s Library. But after the publication of the Third Folio in 1663, the First Folio disappeared from the Library, perhaps as part of the collection of ‘Superfluous Library Bookes’ sold for £24 at about that time. Alternatively, it may have left during the early 1700s, when John Hudson was Bodley’s ‘negligent, if not incapable’  Librarian. Whatever the case, the whereabouts of the Bodleian’s First Folio remained unknown for a good two centuries.

1905: Crowdfunding to save the First Folio

In 1905 Gladwyn Turbutt, an undergraduate at Magdalen, sought the Bodleian’s advice on an early Shakespeare folio which was in his family’s possession. The librarians quickly recognised it as the Bodleian’s missing First Folio, and the Turbutt family offered it to the Library for £250. However, the news of its (re)discovery piqued the interest of an American oil executive, Henry Clay Folger. He was eager to add the Bodleian’s First Folio to his growing collection of Shakespeare First Folios (he already had 23!) and lodged a bid of £3,000: about £280,000 in today’s money.  Since it was unable to raise that amount itself, the Bodleian – in the person of its enterprising Librarian E.W.B. Nicholson – launched a public appeal.

A call to ‘Oxford Men’ and a letter in The Times proved so successful that the target was actually exceeded, and the surplus had to be returned to donors. But although the Bodleian’s First Folio had been ‘saved for the nation’, it was in such a fragile condition that it was kept in safe storage and access to it was highly restricted even to academic researchers.

2012: Crowdfunding to share the First Folio

The story fast-forwards another century, to an age when not only have conservation techniques made great advances, but it has also become possible to digitise artefacts using high-resolution cameras and make them globally available online.

In 2011 a talk on the Bodleian’s copy of the First Folio by Dr Emma Smith of Hertford College prompted Pip Willcox, Curator of Digital Special Collections at the Bodleian, to initiate a new fund-raising campaign. Named in recognition of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad, Sprint for Shakespeare set out to raise £20,000 to conserve and photograph the First Folio, and to publish a digital facsimile that would be freely available to anyone with access to the Web.

The campaign was launched in August 2012 and used broadcast and social media, as well as good old-fashioned print, to promote engagement with Shakespeare, the First Folio and current research. Champions from the theatre world were recruited to the cause, including Vanessa Redgrave, Gregory Doran, Tom Hiddleston, Sir Peter Hall and Stephen Fry, who wrote:

To bring the First Folio, the great authoritative publication, to everyone in the world via digitization is as noble and magnificent a project as can be imagined…

Imaging the First Folio

Making high-resolution digital images of the First Folio. Reproduced by courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries

The £20,000 target was reached before the end of 2012. Bodleian departments including Rare Books, Imaging Services, Conservation and Collection Care, the Bodleian Printing Workshop at the Story Museum, and Bodleian Digital Library Systems and Services, then worked hard to launch the digital facsimile on 23rd April 2013, Shakespeare’s 449th birthday.

Visitors to the Bodleian First Folio website can ‘turn’ the book page by page in order to view them in high-resolution images. They can also download individual pages as JPGs or PDFs. Releasing the digital facsimile with a Creative Commons attribution (CC BY) licence means that it can serve as an invaluable open educational resource for teachers and learners all over the world.

Digital Facsimile of First Folio

Digital facsimile of the title page

Subsequent donations* have now made possible a series of diplomatic editions of the plays in the First Folio. The first one, The Life of Henry the Fift, appeared in 2014 on Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Readers can choose to view a page image with the digital text alongside it, and they can also see a version of the text encoded in Text Encoding Initiative XML. Drop-down menus make it possible to navigate the Folio by part, play, act, scene, and signature, and the digital text and XML can now be downloaded as well as the images.

Sprint for Shakespeare continues to promote use and understanding of the First Folio and its place in Shakespeare studies, through activities that include workshops for teachers as well as a regular blog. And the engagement is two-way: ‘Sprint for Shakespeare’ invites readers to share their thoughts and ideas about the digital facsimile, or to contribute a guest post to its blog. The email address is

So the Bodleian’s First Folio has not only been ‘saved for the nation’, it has also been saved from the ravages of time and can be read and enjoyed by millions who would not otherwise be able to visit it in its home.

* The second phase of the Bodleian First Folio project was made possible by a lead gift from Dr Geoffrey Eibl-Kaye and generous support from the Dallas Shakespeare Club, Mr James Barber, and a private individual.

This case study was based on a presentation given by Pip in the Engage:Social Media Michaelmas series organised by IT Services. See her presentation here.

oxtalent badgeRunner-up, OxTALENT 2013 award for the use of technology for outreach and engagement.

Top Tips for Success

  1. Bear in mind that outreach activities such as nurturing a community and commissioning guest blog posts can take up a lot of time.
  2. Collaborate with other groups who can help you. Listen to other people’s ideas.
  3. Cast around for sources of inspiration. Museums in particular proved valuable in providing ideas for the Sprint for Shakespeare campaign.
  4. To establish a strong identity, have a ‘central’ Twitter account, rather than leaving it to members of staff to tweet from their personal accounts.
  5. Be inventive: review, and ask for feedback, on what you have done, and revise your course of action accordingly.

Further Information

IT Services offers Engage: Social Media Michaelmas, an annual programme of talks, courses, and workshops on using digital technologies for public engagement, outreach, and knowledge exchange. Courses are also available for academics who wish to use Twitter in their research and/or teaching.

TEI is covered in an ITLP course, ‘Structured digital text: A workshop in creating and using texts for research’. Details of all courses, together with the current timetable, can be found in the ITLP course catalogue.

Digital Humanities at Oxford runs an annual summer school for researchers, project managers, research assistants, students, and anyone interested in Digital Humanities.

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