By Gail Kern Paster

As book lovers know well, holding a rare book is a genuinely thrilling experience and getting to turn its pages an even better one. This is the only way to understand the individuality of every book from the manuscript age and the early days of printing. But books on display in museums and libraries—such as the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio on permanent exhibition in one corner of the Folger Great Hall—are necessarily open to one page only. (The First Folio is the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s works. There are approximately 240 copies in existence, and the Folger has collected 79 of them.) The copy on display is open to the famous title page, with its unmistakable bust of Shakespeare engraved by Martin Droeshout. It is an instantly recognizable image that has spawned a multitude of print ads. My personal favorite wittily declares, “A bad haircut is a real tragedy.”

This copy of the First Folio is the regular first stop of the Folger docents on the daily public tour and, for many visitors, the reason they have come to the Folger Shakespeare Library in the first place. We removed the book’s Plexiglas case in early November when Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, visited and were photographed in front of the book. Otherwise the book is safe in its protective enclosure, its pages untouchable and frustratingly out of reach.

To counter that frustration, software engineers have created a computer screen that allows users to touch an image of a page 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.

Because it is expensive, this new technology is on display in only a few places, including the British Library in London and the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. But now, thanks to a generous gift from Folger trustee emeritus Albert H. Small and a partnership with the Library of Congress, the First Folio in our Great Hall will open itself virtually to every visitor’s touch.

We will feature the book’s captivating front matter—its dedicatory epistles and appeals to the general reader, its memorial verses in honor of Shakespeare, its list of principal actors and its table of contents.

Because it was much too expensive to program all 400-plus Folio pages for virtual turning, we selected that
perennial favorite, Romeo and Juliet, as the representative play. Each virtual page will include additional elements. There will be a zoom feature, for example, and pop-up boxes that explain the idiosyncrasies of 17th-century typography and spelling. Readers will learn the identities of publishers and dedicatees. Another screen will explain the meaning of the claim, noted on the book’s title page, to “Publish the True Originall Copies.”

It is not enough, we believe, to merely reproduce these pages. We must also offer a rich interpretation of the characteristics and codes of the early printed page as they are represented by this famous book. Not only will our page-by-page reproduction enhance the visitor’s experience, it will ensure that future generations will be able to touch, at least virtually, this timeless treasure.