THE FOLGER SHAKESPEARE LIBRARY

by Ann Baynes Coiro

The Folger Shakespeare Library sits across the street from the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, its white façade carved with bas-relief scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. But the library is an architectural treasure with a sense of humor—facing the Capitol, Puck presides over a fountain proclaiming, “Lord, what fooles these mortals be!” The library’s public mission is to increase knowledge of Shakespeare and of the early modern world. This mission is served by changing exhibitions in the Great Hall based on the library’s vast holdings and by performances and lectures in a small theater modeled after the Globe.
  Beyond the witty, splendid riches of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s public spaces is an inner sanctum, open only to scholars. The Folger is a great rare book library, home to the largest collection of Shakespeare materials in the world as well as to an extensive collection of books, manuscripts, and art from the early Renaissance through the eighteenth century. It is a cherished resource for Rutgers faculty and graduate students from English and many other departments who work on the early modern world.
  The Folger Library has the third largest collection of books printed in England before 1640, but at its heart is the Shakespeare collection. The library holds, for example, 79 copies of the First Folio of 1623. It also has an extensive collection of promptbooks, many of them for Shakespearean productions, as well as records of actors and directors who engaged with Shakespearean work from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. The library’s catalog, moreover, is available as an online resource that enriches our scholarship and our classrooms.
  Early modern studies is an important part of Rutgers English. In 1970, Rutgers University became a founding member of the Folger Institute, a consortium of American and British colleges and universities that offers multidisciplinary programs on a wide range of topics. Rutgers faculty and graduate students from across the disciplines come to the library not only as readers, but as participants of the Folger Institute. The institute offers courses designed for graduate students, including the masters seminar in research methods and the dissertation seminar, which brings together students in the early stages of their dissertation research. There are, in addition, a wide variety of seminars and workshops on focused topics offered for faculty or a mix of faculty and graduate students.
  My own relationship with the Folger goes back many years. I had the dazzling good fortune to be hired right out of college to work as the Folger’s assistant acquisitions librarian. Although I decided to go on to graduate school, my year given free license to explore the riches of the Folger has been the basis for much of my scholarly work since. Holding the letters John Donne wrote from prison after eloping with Anne More, for example, was eerie and moving. Then and since, the vaults of the Folger reveal to me a past that is at once viscerally present and ineffably strange.