The set of four Shakespeare First Folios was left to Senate House by the US industrialist Sir Louis Sterling in 1956 to be housed permanently in the Bloomsbury institutions as part of a collection of 4,000 rare and first editions.
But the library is now planning to auction the four editions to raise between £3 million and £5 million for his historical research collection.
“Sir Louis was a great advocate for refreshing the collection and we believe he would have supported the idea of reinvesting in fresh items,” a Senate House spokesman said.
The institution will require permission from the Charity Commission to go against the terms of Sir Louis’s bequest, which says the four items, which were bound together in the 19th century, should remain at Senate House, a spokesman added.
He said it would continue to own seven early editions of Shakespeare’s plays, saying their auction was “not under consideration”.
However, academics and leading figures from the arts have started a campaign to block the sale of the folios.
Sir Richard Eyre, the former director of the National Theatre, said the sale would be wrong “both in itself and as an emblematic gesture”.
“Partly because it sets a precedent: these things must be valued, and if academic institutions don’t value them the game is up,” he told The Guardian.
Meanwhile, Henry Woudhuysen, rector of Lincoln College, Oxford, said he would “do all that I can – publicly and privately – to prevent any such sale”.
In a letter to Christopher Pressler, director of Senate House Libraries, Professor Woudhuysen, a Renaissance literature specialist, questioned the university’s moral right to sell the folios, disputed claims their “academic value [are] small” and rebutted the idea that they are rarely accessed.
Meanwhile, Christine Ferdinand, librarian at Magdalen College, Oxford, called the proposed auction was “egregiously wrong”.
In a Times editorial, published on 4 September, the proposed sale was also denounced, citing the university’s “wider obligations…to literary scholarship and to the wishes of its benefactors”.
“It is repaying one of its donors with boorish and philistine ingratitude,” it said.