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Libraries & Culture 39.1 (2004) 89-91

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Figure 1
Bookplate provided courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

It's amazing how a small bookplate, only 5 by 5.5 cm, can represent a very large enterprise—large in size, large in scope, and large in meaningful contributions to a significant community of scholars, students, teachers, and laypersons. Within its decorative border the bookplate contains the coat of arms—with its shield, spear, and falcon—that Shakespeare's family obtained in 1596. The words arching over the coat of arms read "The Folger Shakespeare Library."

The Folger Shakespeare Library was a large enterprise from the day it opened, 23 April 1932, in Washington, D.C. It contained so many books, manuscripts, and other materials (over 200,000) that it had taken five months to move the collection into the library. The collection was built by Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930) and Emily Jordan Folger (1858-1936). Henry Folger became interested in Shakespeare while at Amherst College, but he and his wife did not begin collecting Shakespeare until after their marriage. The Folgers' collecting was a joint venture from the beginning, when he bought a reduced-size facsimile edition of the Shakespeare First Folio (1623) for his wife. Emily Folger even took her master's degree at Vassar with the thesis topic "The True Text of Shakespeare." They bought their first rare book, the 1685 Fourth Folio edition of Shakespeare's plays, at auction in 1889. [End Page 89]

After thirty years of collecting, the Folgers began thinking of a library; it took twelve years for their plans to succeed. They had worked on the project for ten years, eventually choosing the site and the architect and then finally becoming involved in the design, planning, and construction of the library. Henry Folger died before it was finished. He had designated the board of trustees of Amherst College, where he had first developed his interest in Shakespeare, as the overseers of the library. Emily Folger, who dipped into her own considerable fortune to ensure the library would be completed, saw the project to fruition, and the library, a privately endowed, independent research center for scholars, was established in Washington, D.C.

Immediately after the Folger Shakespeare Library opened, its scope began to evolve, covering not only Shakespeare but his entire milieu, the Renaissance in the West, and the early modern age in the West. Today it contains 310,000 books and manuscripts; 116,000 of the books are pre-1801, and 500 were printed before 1501. The library is the world's largest collection of Shakespeare's printed works. The collection holds 79 copies of the First Folio (1623) and 57 copies of the Second Folio (1632). It has the only surviving copy of Titus Andronicus (1594). It has 7,000 other editions of Shakespeare's works, published in 40 languages, as well as 250,000 playbills and 27,000 paintings, drawings, engravings, and prints. It also houses musical instruments, costumes, and films in its collections.

The Folger Library's books and manuscripts now cover all disciplines—history, politics, theology, exploration, law, science, literature, the arts. Its holdings of rare books other than Shakespeare is extensive, including titles recognized by both scholars and students such as Topsell's The Historie of Four Footed Beasts (1607); the first editions of Ortelius's atlas, Theatrum orbis terrarum (1570); Newton's Philosophiae naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687); Thomas Hariot's A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590); and Spenser's Shepheardes Calender (1579).

Not only the library's collections have grown in size and scope over the last six decades but the library's programming as well, including a noted exhibition program; concerts by the Folger Consort; publication of the journal the Shakespeare Quarterly; and the Folger Institute, which, along with a number of colleges and universities, hosts symposia, seminars, and fellowships. The library's activities include sponsorship of Shakespeare performances and festivals; the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, which, with National Endowment for the Humanities funding, holds summer institutes for teachers; and an...


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