Books come and books go at libraries, but few can compare with a very special book that will be on display this month at the downtown Kansas City Public Library.
A rare first folio of the works of William Shakespeare is making its only appearance in Missouri during a nationwide tour to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
“In the world of Shakespeare and in the world of literature, it’s kind of like winning the pennant,” said Sidonie Garrett, artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. “It’s a big deal.”
Anne Ducey, exhibit director at the library, has been preparing for this event for two years.
“It’s just amazing that we actually get to show one of the most profound books that’s ever been printed,” she said.
The first folio consists of 36 plays, including 18 that we otherwise would not even know about. It was first assembled in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. It is believed there were fewer than 750 first folios printed. It is unclear how many survive, but the Folger Shakespeare Library has 82 of them. Each is unique.
“They were printed and bound at different times, so there are important differences,” said Joan Dean, a professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “In some cases they were damaged. … Probably a lot of them went in the Great Fire of London” in 1666.
The folio will be displayed Monday through June 28 in the library’s fifth-floor Missouri Valley Room, where important historical documents are kept. The room will be closed for research purposes during the folio’s visit, but it will be open to all others during regular library hours.
The folio will appeal to “people who have spent their life with Shakespeare or who are just dropping in,” said Dean.
It will be open to the page in “Hamlet” that contains what is perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous phrase: “To be or not to be …”
Although the book will be hands off, there will be a facsimile on a nearby table that people can leaf through, as well as a digital touch-screen reader.
About a dozen UMKC students are earning credit for studying about the folio and serving as docents during the display to help answer visitors’ questions. Educational panels will provide more information.
The Folger Shakespeare Library is loaning a copy of the folio to one venue in each state during this 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death.
“This is the first time the Folger has ever taken it on a nationwide tour,” said Courtney Lewis, spokeswoman for the Kansas City Public Library.
Venues in each state had to submit an application. In Missouri, the Kansas City Public Library won out. The folio previously was displayed this year at Kansas State University in Manhattan.
“That was really our strong suit,” Ducey said. “I remember the day we got the ‘you’ve been selected’ notice. I sent an email with 100 exclamation marks to everyone in the department because it was just really exciting that we actually did it.”
The library plans to promote the folio’s visit in other media markets across the state.
It is not a coincidence that the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s production this year is “Twelfth Night,” one of the plays — including “Macbeth” — that we would not have today if not for the First Folio. The play will be staged Tuesdays through Sundays from June 14 to July 3 in Southmoreland Park, 46th and Oak streets.
“We did a big, dramatic serious play last year,” Garrett said, referring to “King Lear.” “I thought that this year we needed to do something romantic and fun, especially during an election season when we need a laugh.”
Shakespeare-related materials will be on display throughout the Kansas City Public Library while the First Folio is here. They include set models from more than a dozen of the Shakespeare Festival’s productions, as well as several costumes.
Security for the first folio is so tight that the Folger nixed a request from The Kansas City Star to photograph its installation.
A 360-degree camera has been installed in the ceiling above the case, which itself is climate-controlled to protect the centuries-old book.
“We’ve done a lot to ensure that nothing happens to this book,” said Ducey.
Shakespeare’s first folio
It will be displayed June 6-28 at the Kansas City Public Library, 14 W. 10th St.