When officials at the University of London quietly decided to look into selling part of a rare collection of plays by Shakespeare that had been donated years ago, they didn't think many people would notice. After all, they figured, the university had other copies of the same works and the money from the sale, about $8-million, would help fund future book acquisitions.
They couldn't have been more wrong.
Once news leaked out this week that the university had lined up an auctioneer for the material and was already planning to show the books to potential bidders in the United States and Asia, a backlash erupted from academics, librarians and researchers around the world. There were cries that the sale was an "act of stupidity," "unethical" and an "academic disaster." Within days, a network of scholars started an online petition and fired off letters to Britain's charity regulator demanding the sale be called off.
For them, the works – which included the first printed editions of Shakespeare's plays – were irreplaceable research tools. And they argued the sale violated the terms of the donation made by industrialist Sir Louis Sterling, who gave the collection and thousands of other rare books to the university in 1956 on the condition they remain in a campus library.
With pressure mounting, the university called off the sale Thursday evening, but indicated it may do something else to raise badly needed funds.
"The University has decided to focus its attention on examining alternative ways of investing in the collection," Sir Adrian Smith, vice-chancellor, said in a statement. "The money raised from any sale would have been used to invest in the future of the library by acquiring major works and archives of English literature."
The news that the university was backing down brought relief to Henry Woudhuysen, rector of Lincoln College at Oxford University and a Shakespeare scholar, who had led the campaign to stop the auction.
"We wait to see what they do next," Prof. Woudhuysen said Thursday. "I'm not convinced that we're out of the woods. There is always the possibility that they will return with another proposition and one would want to look at that quite carefully. They will have learned something from this."
Prof. Woudhuysen said he hopes the university works with academics on how to raise money for the library without giving up the collection. For him and others, the fight remains important because they believe the university doesn't fully appreciate the uniqueness of the material.
After Shakespeare died in 1616, two actors began gathering up plays and put 36 of them together in a book. It included 18 works that had never been printed before, such as Macbeth and Twelfth Night, and likely would have been lost if it had not been for the actors. The first edition of the book was printed in 1623 and only about 200 copies remain. More editions came later and the university has editions – known as "Folios" – from 1623, 1632, 1664 and 1685.
University officials felt they could sell part of the collection because they had second copies of the same books. But academics such as Germaine Warkentin, professor emeritus of English at the University of Toronto and who is familiar with the texts, said that, because of the way books were printed in the 1600s, no two books are alike and many are filled with corrections and notes that are critical for researchers.
"From an academic point of view, [the proposed sale] is a complete disaster," said Prof. Warkentin who joined the campaign to stop the sale. She added the auction also would have damaged the trust of donors who would think twice before making any similar gift. "Any donor would be immediately put off by this."
Prof. Warkentin added that she was "proud of the bibliographical community for so effectively and so promptly" coming together to stop the university.
For now anyway, people like Christine Ferdinand, chair of Britain's Bibliographical Society which launched the online petition, are cheering the university's reversal.
"For myself, I'd say it is a reassuring outcome," said Ms. Ferdinand, head librarian at Oxford University's Magdalen College. "The University of London actually listened to what we had to say."