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Folger FAQs

Was Henry Folger the founder of the Folger Coffee Company?


No, but a relative was. 


One of Henry Clay Folger’s uncles was James Athearn Folger, who joined his brother Edward in San Francisco during the California Gold Rush. There he became a merchant and eventually founded the Folger Coffee Company. 


Henry Clay Folger found work in the relatively new oil industry after his graduation from Amherst College.  He rose through the ranks to eventually become president and then chairman of the board of Standard Oil of New York, which later became the Mobil Oil Corporation.


Is the Folger part of the federal government?


Visitors are often surprised to learn that the Folger Shakespeare Library is not part of the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian, but an independent research library.  It is administered by the Trustees of Amherst College, the alma mater of Henry Folger, the library's founder.


Although the Folger is located on Capitol Hill near the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the US Capitol, it is a privately endowed and supported institution. When Mr. Folger was asked why the library was not built near Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon in England, he replied, “I did think of placing the library near the bones of the great man himself, but I finally concluded I would give it to Washington, for I am an American.”


Is the Folger collection exclusively about Shakespeare?


Many visitors assume that, because Shakespeare is part of its name, the Folger Shakespeare Library's collection is devoted exclusively to Shakespeare. The collection does include the largest and finest library of Shakespeare materials in the world, but it is also a world-class research center for the Renaissance and early modern age. 


The Folger houses renowned collections of English and continental books from the Renaissance and early modern period, including almost half of all the printed works published in England or in English before 1640. 


At any one time, about a quarter of the scholars (called “readers”) studying at the Folger are working on projects related to Shakespeare. The others are researching topics as diverse as English poets, Italian drama, law, English and European history, early music, theater history, the Protestant reformation, the history of science, and the history of printing and distribution of books.


Is the Folger only for scholars?


An important aspect of the Folger’s mission is to render its collection accessible to scholars for advanced research. The Folger is also committed to advancing an understanding of Shakespeare, the world in which he lived, and the Folger collection through interpretive programs for the public. About a third of the Folger’s professional staff is engaged in developing and organizing educational and cultural outreach programs. 


Visitors may enjoy changing exhibitions of rare books, manuscripts, works of art, and other items from the Folger collection, or learn about other highlights of the collection from a permanent multimedia exhibition in the Shakespeare Gallery. A lively mix of events includes productions by the Folger Theatre, concerts presented by the Folger’s resident early-music ensemble the Folger Consort, readings by important contemporary poets, and fiction readings by leading authors through the PEN/Faulkner Foundation.


The Folger's highly acclaimed pre-college education staff offers numerous programs for families and for elementary and secondary school teachers and students.  Among the most popular are the Teaching Shakespeare Institute, the student performance festivals, the high-school fellowship program, the Shakespeare Set Free teaching guides, and Shakespeare Steps Out, a local program with DC public schools.


The Folger Institute, a consortium including the Folger and more than forty universities, offers programs to encourage new approaches to teaching Shakespeare at the college level. Local undergraduate students participate in the Lannan Student Fellows program, a partnership between Folger Poetry and Georgetown University through which students attend Folger poetry readings, meet with the poets, and complete an advanced poetry and poetics course.


The New Folger Library editions of Shakespeare’s plays, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, provide fresh, thoroughly re-edited texts of the plays, with notes and images from the Folger collection on the facing pages and a wealth of related essays. The Folger’s online outreach to the public includes the Discover Shakespeare project and more pages for teachers, students, and families .


How is the Folger supported?  Doesn't it get all the money it needs from its endowment?


When Henry Clay Folger and Emily Jordan Folger left the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials to the American people, they also provided the building in which it is housed and an endowment capable of supporting its annual operating expenses.


As with virtually all non-profit institutions, however, the Folger’s mission has changed significantly in the course of its history.  The original endowment was sufficient to support the work of a small research library frequented by scholars, but it could not begin to meet the financial needs of a dynamic Washington, DC, cultural institution which offers a wide range of programs and services to the public.


Thanks to the generosity of many benefactors during the years since its founding, the Folger has augmented its endowment significantly so that, today, the institution has a stable foundation.  Nevertheless, even these increased endowment resources cannot underwrite the entire constellation of the Folger's programs and activities. Thus the Folger must rely on annual contributions from friends and supporters to bridge this financial gap.

The Folger's annual giving program invites support at all levels from corporations, foundations, and individuals, through the Friends of the Folger Library.  These contributions provide critical support each year which allows the library to sustain existing programs and create new ones.


What are the inscriptions on the Folger building, and who chose them?


Henry and Emily Folger were personally involved in all aspects of planning the building that would house their Shakespeare collection, although Henry Folger died before it was completed. As the plans were finalized, Henry Folger carefully chose a series of quotations by and about Shakespeare for use throughout the exterior and interior of the building. Click here  for a list of all the exterior inscriptions, then continue on to a companion page for the interior inscriptions.


The nine bas-reliefs  across the north facade of the Folger were also personally selected by the Folgers. Henry Folger visited the studio of the artist, John Gregory, and gave Gregory advice on his depiction of King Lear.


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