Into the Vault

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I’m on a NPR Weekend Edition segment about Shakespeare’s First Folio this weekend; Scott Simon and I ventured into the vault of the Folger with library director Gail Paster.

It’s very rare that they let anyone into the underground vault — it literally has a giant time-lock door — so we were lucky indeed to have a look at such treasures as this Folio cheerily defaced by a girl in the 1720s:

This was still before critics like Theobald and Johnson had made it clear why perhaps you might not want to use old Folios as scratch-pads for your kids.

One neat detail that didn’t make it into the finished piece: Scott asking Gail if it wasn’t perilous to have all these valuable books in one place, because what if there was a fire?

“Well,” Gail smiled, “in a fire the oxygen is evacuated from the room and replaced with halocarbon gas. We’d have about five minutes to get out.”

Which, I suppose, is why you don’t want to fall asleep in the vault. Oh, and also because you could end up like this guy:


Paul Collins teaches writing at Portland State University, and his work appears regularly in New Scientist, Slate, and The Believer. His next book, The Murder of the Century, will be published in June by Crown. More from this author →