A Hamlet that’s almost too fragile to open

Today, we bring you a Folger Find that might remain a bit of a mystery.

First, take a look at these pages, and then take a guess why they look a little strange.

A cork Hamlet - ART Flat c21

No, they’re not insect-eaten or worse: they’re actually made out of sheets of cork, not paper! Close up, you can see that they are much thicker than the pages in a standard book.

A cork Hamlet - ART Flat c21

The book in the photographs above is a special edition of Hamlet that was produced in Barcelona in 1930. It contains the text of Hamlet in both the original English and a Spanish translation, with illustrations by Catalan artist and designer Antonio Saló, all printed on cork pages. It’s housed in a case with an incredibly unassuming exterior, but a luxurious interior, lined in velvet with silk cord embellishments and gilding to match the book’s cover.

A cork Hamlet - ART Flat c21

Now here’s the catch: unfortunately, I decided not take any pictures of the pages inside the book. The cork pages are so light and delicate that they can barely support their own weight, and putting any stress on a page, even the small amount required to turn it, could damage it if the page is not properly supported. I decided to err on the side of caution, and leave the book closed.

Does this mean that this book is unreadable? Will it sit forever, unopened, on the shelf? Not at all. It just means that we will try to handle the book as little as possible, and will take extra precautions when doing so, such as using sheets of paper to back the pages as they are turned. This book, along with others in the Folger collection, represents the tension between making our items available for people to use for research now, and preserving items for future generations. This is especially important for books of which only a limited number were published, and or books of which only a few copies survive today. When we can, we try to meet in the middle by providing other versions of these books, such as microfilm copies or, much more commonly these days, digital images.

Do you have any fragile books in your home collection? How do you take care of them?