collectionThe University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign is home to a large collection of rare Spanish plays. The collection, which numbers roughly 12,000, includes late eighteenth and nineteenth-century comedias sueltas (Spanish equivalent of a chapbook), nineteenth-and twentieth-century scripts and a small number of theater journals. Many of the scripts have marginalia, modifications for performance, signatures and stamps (such as from Spanish theatrical archives) and thus are unique. Another rare element is the many compilations of scripts created by private owners through the use of various types of covers. Many of the plays feature imagery, either of scenes from the plays or relating to advertisements that appear on the covers and backs. Scholars in the areas of literary studies, theater history, printing history, book history, and art history will find the collection a rich source of material.

saldañaHistory of the Collection
The Library purchased the plays in several installments in the early 1960s.
Professor James O. Crosby, faculty in the Department of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese at UIUC from 1955-68, was the “architect” of the collection. He and Helen Welch, then Head of the Acquisitions Department, worked with booksellers in Spain to purchase in lot a great number of primary materials relating to Spanish theater. The University Librarian at the time Robert Downs, ever eager to obtain large collections, would have been supportive of Crosby and Welch’s collecting activities. He certainly would have seen the plays as a bargain, for acquisition files record them as costing between 20 and 50 cents. Crosby’s involvement in the play collection was limited to its purchase. A scholar of seventeenth-century Spanish poetry, he had little personal interest in them and never saw them after they arrived at the Library. Crosby’s commitment to augmenting the Library’s holdings, connections with Spanish booksellers, and knowledge of his colleague and chair William H. Shoemaker’s interest in nineteenth-century Spanish drama prompted him to suggest the acquisition of them, in fact as part of an ongoing and concerted collection development in nineteenth-century Iberian theater. Keysort cards fortuitously left in several volumes of the collection, archival records and Crosby’s testimony name Antonio Mateos Ortega of Gran Librería Anticuaria, a book dealer in the southern Spanish city of Málaga, as the plays’ source. It is suspected that Ortega may have gathered the materials from defunct theaters and theatrical archives. Several examples are stamped with the names of such institutions.

austriaOrganization of the Collection
To deal with the great number of items and their unwieldy nature, the Library had the plays bound together in 669 volumes. Generally speaking, they are organized by author and then by title, if anonymous. Multiple spellings for author names and the Spanish practice of double surnames upset the disposition of the items and at times gives the impression of no organizational principle at work. Abrupt ruptures in the sequencing tell us that the collection is really three separately purchased and processed lots bundled together. Some plays are even bound in backwards, an oversight that signifies a rush job and the possible involvement of student workers. An invoice in one of the volumes names the Hertzberg-New Method Company of Illinois as the binder. The company used the least expensive technique and materials, known as “LUM” or “Lesser Used Materials” bindings, really little more than cardboard, wide tape or spine cloth, glue that was quickly and sloppily assembled. From the limited information we have, it seems that their binding and haphazardness of organization indicates how little the plays were valued and that it was anticipated that they would be little used.


The Plays Today
The Library now recognizes the extraordinary value of the Spanish plays to research and study and is in the process of writing an NEH Grant to disband the plays, place them in acid-free folders, provide necessary preservation measures, catalog and digitize them. The Library is also considering creating a searchable database so that patrons can easily search and browse the entire collection.



























For more information on the Spanish Plays Collection, please contact Paula M. Carns at pcarns@illinois.edu