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Shakespeare’s Home on the Hill Turns 75

Massive Folger Shakespeare Library Was Couple’s ‘Gift to the American People’

During World War I, Standard Oil of New York executive Henry Folger and his wife, Emily, were en route to a golf outing in Hot Springs, Va., when their train was held up in Washington, D.C., because of troop movements. To pass the time, the couple — avid Shakespeare collectors who never traveled without card catalogs listing both their Bard-related holdings and objects they were interested in obtaining — took a stroll to the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

It was a serendipitous moment for the nation’s capital: The Folgers just happened to be in the market for a location for a library to house their extensive Shakespeare collection.

“When they walked up towards the Capitol I think there was this epiphany, this eureka moment, when Henry Folger said, ‘This is where the library ought to be. It ought to be near the U.S. Capitol. It’s a gift to the American people,’” said Folger Shakespeare Library Director Gail Kern Paster.

Folger would die before his library, located just a block from the Capitol, was complete, but his legacy has more than endured.

This year, the Folger Shakespeare Library, which opened its doors on April 23 — Shakespeare’s alleged birthday — of 1932 is marking its 75th year. It’s an appropriate time for the anniversary: The capital city is, after all, in the midst of a six-month celebration of all things related to William Shakespeare.

Building a Legacy

The genesis of the Folger Shakespeare Library dates back to a lecture by Ralph Waldo Emerson that Henry Folger attended in 1879 while an undergraduate at Amherst College. Inspired, Folger began reading Emerson’s other works, including a speech on Shakespeare’s importance, which fueled his passion for the Bard. It would be a decade before he bought his first rare book, but once he got started there was no stopping him. Aided by the breakup of the great private English libraries and the resulting flood of rare books onto the market, Folger and his wife amassed “thousands of crates” of materials, which soon outgrew their Brooklyn Heights home and had to be housed “all over the place,” including in “Standard Oil warehouses,” Paster said.

Among the Shakespeare treasures Folger acquired are the Pavier quartos, a unique quarto of “Titus Andronicus” (which Folger purchased after it was discovered wrapped in lottery tickets in an attic in Sweden); the world’s largest collection of First Folios (79 of the roughly 240 in existence); and Queen Elizabeth I’s Bible. All in all, the library, which continues to expand its collections, comprises 316,000 books and manuscripts, 50,000 paintings, engravings and other images, as well as numerous items ranging from furniture to films. (The library also holds many of the Folgers’ personal effects — the couple was childless — and their ashes are interred behind a brass plaque in the grand Elizabethan-style old reading room. “I feel we are channeling them all the time,” Paster said, noting that the library has its share of ghost stories.)

Despite its unparalleled holdings, the Folger retains an understated mien. Notably, most of its greatest treasures — in addition to maintaining the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare’s works, it also boasts the third largest holding of early English printed books, after the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Library — are out of sight to the general public in its researchers-only reading rooms or in vaulted, fire-proof stacks 22 feet below ground. A stroll through its dark-paneled Great Hall on a typical day might find a smattering of visitors gazing at exhibits behind glass cases. (Last time the library checked, in 2003, its annual foot traffic was roughly 100,000 per year, including theatergoers, said Garland Scott, a spokeswoman for the Folger.)

But that’s hardly the whole story.

Beginning with the directorship of O.B. Hardison in 1969, the Amherst College Board of Trustees, which until recently served as the library’s main administrators, decided to transform the institution from a largely research-based library to one that also offered expansive public outreach — an emphasis the library has retained to this day. Over the years the library has established the Folger Consort, a chamber music ensemble; a theater group (which would later split from the library and is now known as the Shakespeare Theatre Co., though by the mid-1990s the library had formed its current theater group, Folger Theatre); poetry programs; and student Shakespeare festivals. The library also is home to the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and co-hosts its reading series that culminates in an annual fiction award. Moreover, Paster noted, the Folger editions of Shakespeare’s plays “sell more than all other Shakespeare editions combined.” And the library’s online Shakespeare lesson plans have received “millions of visits by teachers,” she said.

Folger Turns 75

To mark the Folger Shakespeare Library’s three quarters of a century of existence, an ambitious array of activities has been scheduled. Last week, the library launched the new exhibit “Shakespeare in America,” a broad survey of the ways in which the United States has embraced the Bard from its founding to the present day. (Related story, this page.) Next month, a three-part radio documentary of the same name narrated by actor Sam Waterston, which includes interviews with ex-Sens. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Walter Mondale (D-Minn.), will begin airing on public radio (local broadcasts are scheduled for WAMU on May 8, 15 and 22 at 10 p.m.). On April 29, the annual party and open house, during which some of the library’s off-limits areas are opened to the public, will be held to mark Shakespeare’s birthday. And the Folger’s annual spring fundraising gala will be headlined by actors Sir Derek Jacobi and Vanessa Redgrave. (While not explicitly linked to the anniversary, Folger director Paster will be featured in a spread in May’s Vanity Fair on “libraries that keep it lively,” showing her posed in a ruff on the balcony of the library’s old reading room, Scott said.)

One notable omission from the anniversary festivities is a presidential component — particularly given the White House’s longtime involvement with the library. President Herbert Hoover was on hand at the library’s dedication in 1932, for instance. And recent administrations from former Presidents Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton have marked the major anniversaries with some sort of White House reception. Paster is reticent to discuss the lack of White House participation this year, attributing the absence to “mixed signals.” She did point out, however, that the president and Mrs. Bush had served as honorary patrons for past Folger galas and once even hosted a Shakespeare birthday party at the White House.

Forward Thinking

At its founding in 1932, the Folger, along with the Freer Gallery of Art and the Library of Congress, was one of only a handful of major cultural institutions in Washington. Today, it vies for attention among a broad spectrum of popular draws ranging from the numerous Smithsonian museums that now dot the National Mall to private ventures like the International Spy Museum. And the Shakespeare Theatre Co. — the Folger’s “prodigal son,” as Scott terms it — is set to expand its already high-profile position in the heart of the economically resurgent Penn Quarter area with the opening this fall of the Harman Center for the Arts, which will include a new 775-seat theater.

But Paster said the Folger is secure in its mission and calls the Shakespeare Theatre Co. “friendly competition.” “Our missions are very different,” Paster said, noting the Folger Theatre’s emphasis on performing works mainly from the library’s collections in an intimate Elizabethan-style theater.

And the library is taking some significant steps in modernization.

It’s working to increase the ways it disseminates Shakespeare’s works, such as digitizing its collection, and it recently added a kiosk with a digitized version of a 1623 First Folio (whose pages you can turn by touching the screen) to the 16th-century-style Great Hall. The library has placed portions of its content online and offers a Web component for its exhibits. Most recently, it added cell phone audio tours for its shows, which are accessible by dialing a number on one’s personal mobile phone.

“I think that ultimately we will be a library without walls,” Paster said, addressing the future online potential. Now that’s Shakespeare for the 21st century.

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