400-year-old book our latest literary treasure

The Workes of Benjamin Jonson

The Library recently received an extraordinary donation: a first edition of The Workes of Benjamin Jonson from 1616, along with a 16-volume set of the Plays and Poems of William Shakspeare (sic) curated by Edmond Malone and originally published in 1790, and a rare complete set of Malone Society publications.

The donors, Charles Littrell, former Executive General Manager of APRA, and his partner, haematologist Dr Kimberly Cartwright, made this very generous gift to commemorate the tenure and achievements of the University’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Dr Michael Spence AC, prior to his departure in December 2020.

University Librarian Philip Kent explains how he was “delighted to have met Charles and Kimberly through this special gift. The Jonson and Shakespeare works have enormous value to the University. As a collector myself, I was impressed by the way that Charles scoured the world to find the volumes to complete the set of Malone Society publications. Their gift will be enhanced as future volumes are added each year.”

The gift isn’t just a generous addition to the Library; it is a priceless resource for researchers and students across the University.

The 1616 first edition of The Workes of Benjamin Jonson (his ‘Folio’) is the original theatre book in the English language. As such, it is “one of the most important books published in England,” according to Dr Huw Griffiths, Chair of the Department of English at the University of Sydney.

“It marks the first time that a living author made a concerted effort to present his writing as a distinct and coherent body of work.”

Benjamin Jonson (1572-1637) was an English poet and playwright, best known for popularising the dramatic comedy genre, ‘comedy of humours’. As a dramatist, he is generally regarded as second only to Shakespeare.

Comprised of three kinds of literary texts: plays; poems and epigraphs; and the texts of his masques (court entertainments), Jonson’s Folio served as a model for Shakespeare’s first collected works, his ‘First Folio’ (1623).

“By placing the plays and masques in this magnificent book, Jonson is making a bold statement,” says Dr Griffiths. “Plays and masques are ephemeral, time-dependant events, and, of course, they had been printed in less prestigious print texts before.” Jonson’s innovation was to “take them out of their short-term contexts, insisting on their value across time.”

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Liam Semler, concurs with this view. “Various people at the time expressed surprise and derision at the fact that a mere ‘play’ could be declared a ‘work’, and so this book helped contribute to the emerging idea of modern plays as worthy of some elevated status.”

Dr Griffiths says the Folio will be used for research as well as for teaching students about early books and how literary value is established. “The book wonderfully situates Jonson in complex contexts: the courtly writer, familiar with putting on royal entertainments, but also the working writer, engaged in the life of the printing house. He is really testing out (for all of us) how literary fame might be sustained in print.”

Though Professor Semler and Dr Griffiths have only had a short time to examine our new copy of the Folio, it is already looking very promising. The presence of “stop-press” corrections in the copy, where either the printer or the author changed text in between individual printings, indicates that our copy was produced later in the print run.

As the Library already owns a partial copy of the 1616 Folio, the value for our researchers is enhanced by the ability to make comparisons. Differences in the text will teach us how books like this were put together, and the involvement of printing houses (and potentially authors) in correcting text during a print run.

The Jonson Folio, Shakespeare volumes and other books from the donation can be viewed in our Rare Books & Special Collections reading room by appointment.

You can also listen to an interview about the Folio with Professor Liam Semler on ABC Drive with Richard Glover (commencing around 42 minutes into the program).

Photographs: Sarah Lorien and Kim Wilson

How should we manage our collections? Have your say

Students in library looking at a computer

The Library is in the process of redeveloping our collections framework. This is a set of guidelines to inform a wide range of decisions about how we manage our collections. It will cover questions such as how we:

  • increase the diversity of resources in our collections
  • represent global ideas and new ways of thinking
  • choose what types of materials to purchase (for example, journals, books, films, music, theses, rare books, subject databases)
  • choose what formats to invest in (print or electronic)
  • assess and decide what resources to retain in our collections
  • enable our clients to access our resources
  • order textbooks for a course
  • accept donations
  • collect non-traditional research outputs
  • respond to suggestions for our collections.

The framework will also guide the way we communicate our decision-making criteria and other information about our collections to the public.

We are seeking feedback from everyone who uses the Library – staff, students, alumni and community borrowers – to ensure the new collections framework is clear, accessible and adapts to your research and learning needs.

Your participation in this survey will directly influence the framework. We want it to reflect the real needs and preferences of our clients, not just now but well into the future. How can we better serve you in the next few years? What about those who come after you? What should the University of Sydney Library look like in 2030 or 2040?

Please share your ideas by completing our online survey. It should only take about 5-10 minutes. Your feedback will make a real difference to the future of the Library and everyone who uses it.

Cataloguing the Graham Science Fiction Collection

Library staff working with Rare Books & Special Collections are invited to blog about significant items and interesting discoveries. Here, Rare Books & Special Collections cataloguing assistant Simon Cooper writes about the Graham Science Fiction Collection.

During the Covid-19 period the Rare Books & Special Collections cataloguing team has been tackling, from home and using photos, the books in the Graham science fiction (SF) collection. The books number around 30,000. In addition, the collection includes large holdings of comics and magazines, serials or journals, all still to be catalogued online. 

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Digital Placemaking Project

interior Fisher Library foyer

When you visit our library sites do you ever think of the story of these places, the culture of millennia integrally connected to the land we are on?

The Library has an exciting new project announcement! We’re commissioning digital artwork by First Nations artists to inform and celebrate cultural and historical context for our physical library sites and incorporate an Acknowledgement of Country. These artworks will be displayed on screens throughout library sites and on our huge ThinkSpace video wall.

This opportunity to highlight the story of the culture of the region is part of the University of Sydney 2020 program focussing on diversity and inclusion through a Wingara Mura grant from the Deputy Vice Chancellor Indigenous Strategy and Services.

Visit our web page for more details and to access the link to the ‘Expressions of Interest’ document which contains the full artwork scope and specifications, key elements, timelines and terms and conditions.

Submission close 31 July 2020

Collecting your COVID-19 University Experience

section of quilt designed and made during COVID-19

We want to collect your stories describing your experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Library is creating a collection that documents the university experience of staff and students during the COVID-19 pandemic. We want to collect your videos, personal reflections, artworks, photographs, stories, poetry and other expressions of your own experience to help us record this essential part of University history for generations to come. This collection will be made publicly available to be used in research, teaching and for public interest.

Not sure where to start? Consider writing a message to the future:

Imagine you’re sending a message to someone in the future. This may be your future self, your descendants, your community or even someone opening a time capsule from today in a future century. What would you like them to know about the pandemic as experienced through your daily life, your hopes, your fears, what you’ve observed or learnt, unexpected surprises and joys? Your message may take in any form – written, illustrated, composed, sound-based, video, a zine, 3D, or something else entirely. You can give it to us as a digital file(s), or a physical item.

Visit the Collecting COVID-19 website to find out how to share your story. All submissions will be reviewed in line with scope of this collection. Unfortunately, this means we won’t be able to accept everything for the final collection.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a particularly tough time for many people, please remember that there are ways for you to get support:

Support through the University of Sydney (for staff and students)

Other sources of support in Australia

Here are some of our submissions to inspire you!

Eight Million Gods in Nihon: the Practice of Shintō and the Japanese Culture

tower gate of Katori Shrine

Drawing on the Japanese pre-war postcards collection from the Library’s East Asian Collection, Rare Books & Special Collections student intern Jiawen (Chloe) Li (Master of Museum and Heritage Studies) introduces the practice of Shintō and explores its place in the Japanese culture today.


Shintō (神道) has been at the heart of Japanese culture since the country has named itself Nihon (日本), “the sun’s origin”. It originated in the relationship between ancient Japanese and the power they found in nature . Through centuries of recorded history, Shintō continues to take part in the framing of Japan both to the outside world and to the Japanese themselves. Shintō is a way of life and a way of thinking. Drawing on the Japanese postcard collection from the University Library’s East Asian Collection, this online exhibition is about to walk you through the spiritual Shintō world.

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