Library’s labour of love

A priceless First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays is now available online, following months of painstaking digitisation work at the University of Leeds.


The First Folio is one of the most important publications in the history of the English language. Although cheap editions of individual plays had previously been published, the First Folio gathered Shakespeare’s work together in one volume.

Martin Butler, Professor of English Renaissance Drama at the University, explains its significance: “The first folio contains 18 plays that had never been printed before, some of them amongst the most famous in the canon. Without the folio, we would not have Macbeth or Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra or Coriolanus; we would be missing Twelfth Night and As You Like It, Measure for Measure and The Comedy of Errors; we would be without The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. We would never have heard of ‘Et tu, Brute’, or ‘All the world’s a stage’, or ‘If music be the food of love, play on’.

Although 230 copies of the First Folio still exist worldwide, only 40 are still in Britain and just two are in Yorkshire. The University’s copy is in unusually good condition – complete and containing all original leaves.

To mark the 450th anniversary of the playwright’s birth on 23 April the University is opening up this historic work for all. Support from the University’s Footsteps Fund – which brings together donations from thousands of former students – has allowed the fragile 900 pages of the Folio to be photographed and made available online.

The Tempest is the first play to be displayed in full; a complete digital resource of all the plays will be launched in May.

The online formatting allows the content to be explored and discovered in a range of exciting ways, giving users not only easy access to the original text, but also to other learning materials and the footnotes and annotations which have been added to the pages by the book’s different owners over the years. Given the significance of the First Folio, both to the University and external audiences, the library has created a resource which will be valuable for both research and teaching.

“It’s amazing for me to be able to come into contact with such materials as part of my working life,” says Literary Archivist Sarah Prescott. “But it’s not a trophy cabinet. These books and manuscripts are the backbone of research and study – and academics use these materials all the time. The internet now gives us a wonderful opportunity to make them available to all.”

Read more about the Library's First Folio.

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