Profile of a Cultural Heritage Institution Interlude: The Folger Shakespeare Library

Why the Folger Shakespeare Library?

I had not planned to profile the Folger originally, but I have recently researched it for other purposes, which led to the discovery that it is a unique and interesting cultural heritage institution, and that it would add diversity to my current profiles.

The Basics

Mission: “To preserve and enhance its collections; to render the collections, in appropriate formats, accessible to scholars; and to advance understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s writings and of the culture of early modern Europe more generally through various programs designed for all students and for the general public.

The History

  • 1879: Henry Folger was inspired by a lecture given by Ralph Waldo Emerson at Amherst College.
  • Emily Folger, inspired by her husband’s interest, earned a master’s degree from Vassar for a thesis on “The True Text of Shakespeare.”
  • 1932: The Folger is founded by Henry Clay Folger and his wife, Emily Jordan Folger.
  • 1948: The trustees appointed as director Louis B. Wright, who had recently transformed the Huntington Library into a modern research center.
  • 1969: The trustees appointed as director O.B. Hardison, Jr., a professor of English literature at the University of North Carolina, who developed the Folger’s Elizabethan Theatre, into a functioning playhouse for the newly formed Folger Theatre Group.

The Programming

  • Exhibitions – “Very Like a Whale” is the latest, which “showcases the lively world of the Renaissance imagination and the uniquely human ability to interpret a single object in multiple ways.” The title of this exhibit is appropriately taken from a scene in Hamlet, when Hamlet and his advisor Polonius disagree about their different interpretations of cloud shapes. It attempts to answer the question: “What did the the world look like to people during the Renaissance?”
  • Theater – “The Conference of the Birds” is nearing its end. “A theatrical adventure soars in this poignant 12th century Persian fable about the search for the divine”. There is a Pay-What-You-Can night, providing increased access to individuals who may not have the means otherwise. There are Pre- and Post-Show Talks about the show.
  • Lectures – Have included the Elizabethan Garden Tour, DEBORAH HARKNESS! On early modern London, and one on Shakespeare in Kabul.
  • Poetry
  • Education Programs – for primary and secondary schools classes (I remember my trip in either 5th grade or 9th grade), performance workshops and Shakespeare Festivals
  • Family Programs – Shake up your Saturdays! Programs that “provide a morning of history, activity, performance, and fun!”
  • Concerts – Christmas music of Florence in the Trecento! Enchanting. With a free pre-conference discussion.

Collections and Research

  • The Folger is the home of the world’s largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials and of major collections of other Renaissance books, manuscripts, and works of art.
  • It serves researchers, visitors, teachers, students, families, and theater- and concert-goers.
  • It is a world-renowned research center on Shakespeare and the early modern age in the West.
  • Its conservation lab is a leading innovator in the preservation of rare materials.
  • The collections are meant to be actively used, which indicates a leaning toward access in the tug of war between access and preservation, but the materials’ rarity, age, and fragility are clearly respected.

The Conservation Lab

  • Folger’s conservators collaborate closely with its curators, which is a growing trend but not yet common, according to Dr. Miriam Clavir, who discussed the importance of collaboration between these two groups of professionals in her talk about Conservation and Preserving Cultural Significance.
  • As with most North American institutions, the conservation efforts at Folger are concentrated on stopping further deterioration from occurring, instead of on restoring items to an earlier state, although that is also done in some cases.
  • Folger has an advanced conservation internship program.
  • It pioneers and develops new conservation technologies.
  • One recent project was to conserve the structure of a popular Polish herbal, printed in 1534, to which were added patches in places, which were then written over as readers made notes. Conservation work has included separating the patches, repairing the damaged pages, and then re-adhering the patches on Japanese paper hinges.

The Impact of Changing Technologies and Informatics

  • The online exhibit “Discover Shakespeare” include digitized images of important works, maps, and related materials (on the life of Shakespeare, his works, his theatre, etc.). I have seen more interactive digitized historical and rare materials, but the website does take advantage of the technologies available to present online exhibits.
  • The digital image collection offers online access to 50,000 images, including books, theater memorabilia, manuscripts, art, and more. There appear to be more interactive and usability features in the digital collection than in the “Discover Shakespeare” section, including side-by-side viewing, export thumbnails, the ability to view cataloging information, and even the ability to construct permanent links to images and searches.
  • Digital collections use Luna Insight.
  • Folger Bindings Image Collection (drool)
  • Union First Line Index: a union catalog enabling researchers to search English verse collections of seven prestigious institutions in the US and the UK.
  • Online Catalog named Hamnet.
  • Ask a Librarian – Reference questions online.
  • RSS feeds
  • On every webpage, there is a social media button that allows sharing of the web content on many different social media platforms.

The Summary

Throughout its 80-year history, the Folger Shakespeare Library has benefited from a relatively narrow focus, and from its trustees’ and directors’ dedicated interest in creating a modern research center that provides access to rare materials and scholarly resources.

The Folger Shakespeare Library is unique among cultural heritage institutions for its programming, its conservation lab, and its wide-ranging online and digital offerings. Not many cultural heritage institutions that I am familiar with include a playhouse, a theater group, and iconic publications like the Folger Editions of Shakespeare. I love that their programming is so diverse and yet relevant to the Library’s collections and mission.

All in all the Folger has made very robust use of the technologies that allow institutions to share collections, resources, and programming online. I am very impressed. Although its mission and collections focus on the past, the Folger has incorporated new technologies into its resources to provide access to its historical collections with online exhibits, the union catalog it shares with other similar institutions, and its digital image collection. This cultural heritage institution seems to do very well straddling the responsibilities of preservation of historical cultural heritage and of the provision of access to that heritage for future generations in relevant and meaningful ways.

Lastly, how did I not know about the amazing programming available at the Folger when I last lived in D.C.? There are so many programs I’d like to take advantage of now that I’m moving back to the area.


Folger Shakespeare Library. (n.d.). About us. Retrieved on 13 November 2012 from

Folger Shakespeare Library. (n.d.). The collection. Retrieved on 17 November 2012 from

Folger Shakespeare Library. (n.d.). The Conference of the Birds. Retrieved on 17 November 2012 from

Folger Shakespeare Library. (n.d.). Conservation. Retrieved on 17 November 2012 from

Folger Shakespeare Library. (n.d.). Digital image collection. Retrieved on 17 November 2012 from

Folger Shakespeare Library. (n.d.). Discover Shakespeare. Retrieved on 17 November 2012 from

Folger Shakespeare Library. (n.d.). History of the Folger. Retrieved on 17 November 2012 from

Folger Shakespeare Library. (n.d.). Saving old notes in a Polish herbal. Retrieved on 17 November 2012 from

Folger Shakespeare Library. (n.d.). Use the collection. Retrieved on 17 November 2012 from

Folger Shakespeare Library. (n.d.). Very Like a Whale. Retrieved on 13 November 2012 from

Folger Shakespeare Library. (n.d.). Very Like a Whale (press release). Retrieved on 13 November 2012 from


One thought on “Profile of a Cultural Heritage Institution Interlude: The Folger Shakespeare Library

  1. This sounds like a great Cultural Heritage Institution. As a lit major, I’d love to visit it if I’m ever in D.C. They sound like the have taken a great deal of time to preserve items and put a lot of effort into programing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s