Richard J. Kuhta, who retires as the Eric Weinmann Librarian in December, looks back on his 15 years at the Folger and talks about good days, bad days, and what he’d like to say to founders Emily and Henry Clay Folger.
An excerpt of this interview first appeared in the Folger Magazine, Fall 2008.
When you accepted the position of Librarian 15 years ago, what did you expect the job to be like? How close to reality were your expectations?
I really didn’t know what to expect, so I started off simply trying to feel the pulse of the place. My biggest fear was that the prestigious Folger Shakespeare Library might be full of itself. But after I met Georgianna and Betsy I heaved a great sigh of relief, went home and told Candace that we could unpack now.
Anything turn out not as you expected but ended up being a blessing in disguise?
What has been your biggest challenge?
The Vault Repair Project, 2003-2004, was the nightmare of my career. I’ve never been so anxious about anything in my worklife. In August, 2002, we had pools of standing water in the manuscript aisles of Deck C and spent over two years (years!) keeping the collection out of harm’s way during construction, and the Reading Room never closed. It was a miraculous effort. After that I knew we could handle anything.
What part of your job do you most enjoy or what is most rewarding?
I am a student of library operations, and keenly interested in how and why libraries work, or don’t work. As soon as you walk into a library you can tell if it is a healthy place or not. I’ve spent my career trying to get it right—and the solution is different in every environment—trying to make the Folger a place of energy, productivity, collegiality, and passion. I love being a part of that. The most rewarding thing at the Folger is being around the collection—this priceless and peerless collection. It’s a privilege.
Why did you decide to become a librarian?
Little boys don’t grow up wanting to be librarians. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else. The turning point was a fluke chance to work in the the Hugh Owen Library in Aberystwyth, Wales (1977–79), and watching one man, Ron Job, the Periodicals Librarian, do his job. (My first professional position was, guess what? Periodicals Librarian.) I met my next role model at Columbia, when I was in Library School: John Zenelis, then Head of Cataloging in the Columbia Law Library. I damn near became a cataloger because of him.
What is the question you were asked the most as the Folger Librarian?
“Who was Mr. Folger?”
When you’re having a bad day, how do you refresh your commitment to the Folger and its mission?
I take a walk. I get out of the building and try to think things through. Then I come back and try not to think about myself, or how I’m feeling. It works. Isolate the problem. What needs to happen? What are the options, and what’s in the best interest of the Folger?
If you had to pick just one of your accomplishments as your legacy to the Folger, what would it be?
My legacy is the people I’ve hired. Central Library is now blessed with a core group of people who, together, can accomplish anything. I’m convinced of that. They’ll miss me for seven days, then the machine will keep running.
What will you miss about the Folger?
Two things: that moment in a meeting or in a room when I see colleagues pulling in the same direction—selflessly, collaboratively, intelligently. I just sit back and watch. That’s what librarians can do, that’s what libraries can be. Secondly, the collection, of course. I still get goose bumps when I pick up certain things. I can’t believe I get to do this.
What one piece of advice would you give to your successor?
Listen before you lead.
People might think that a collection such as the Folger’s is relatively static. Has it changed during your tenure and, if so, how?
It changed irrevocably when we acquired Harmsworth Collection in 1937. The Folger became a library, not a special collection. In my tenure, perhaps the most profound change has been consciously investing in manuscripts and art (our curators taught us how to do that; look at our Jubilee acquisitions)—and, equally important, in introducing cataloging and grant projects to support access to those formats. We have more people involved in acquisitions now, in the selection process. That’s a shift, because I feel it’s the process that’s needed to build a balanced collection. And, thanks to recent support from the Board of Governors, we have enhanced resources to be more competitive in the market place.
Association copies are a personal interest of yours – do you have a favorite at the Folger? In an ideal world, what would your dream fantasy association copy be?
Yes, I love knowing a book has been in someone’s hands. Somehow it’s still warm. Two books, two voices, two inscriptions are magic: Thys Boke is Myne, Prynce Henry* and I beesche your grace humbly, when you look on this, remember me. Your grace assured, Anne the dowager [daughter] of Cleves.**
Dream copy? God’s copy of Shakespeare, annotated. Or perhaps Edward de Vere’s copy of a Shakespeare quarto, with a single note, “Where’d he come from!!”
• * Henry VIII, King of England, (1491-1547). Marcus Tullis Cicero. Commentum familiare in Ciceronsis officia.Lyon, 1502.
• ** Anne of Cleves (1515-1557), Henry VIII’s fourth wife. [Liturgy] Enchirdio preclare ecclie sarisburiesis. Paris, 1533. Final blank leaf.
What are some of your other favorite items in the collection?
Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender (London, 1579), hands down. It’s a landmark in English poetry, and the book that established Spenser’s reputation among his contemporaries. Its acquisition, thanks to Werner, was one of the greatest moments, and lessons, of my career.
Do you have a favorite Folger exhibition, program, or seminar?
The three exhibitions I worked on are very dear: Decade of Collecting,”(2000) Thys Boke is Myne, (2003) and David Garrick (1717–1779)—A Theatrical Life. (2005). Elizabeth I, Then and Now was brilliant—we got everything right. And I am very fond of the current exhibition, Arms and Armor in Shakespeare. Imagine having 44 pieces of Tudor-Stuart armor on display here! One of the most memorable programs for me was a talk by Azar Nafisi [Reading Lolita in Tehran]. I was tired, cranky, and didn’t want to go out that night. That woman makes you weep; she lives literature. And the night Philip Roth read the opening pages of The Human Stain. Wow. And watching Kate Norris, listening to Rosa Lamoreux, hearing Helen Vendler talk about the sonnets, etc. etc.
Is there an item in the Folger collection whose provenance surprised you?
Trollope’s collection of early modern drama. I didn’t know he cared!
What was the most exciting “find” a reader brought to you?
When Bernice Kliman was here working as a Variorum editor (Hamlet) she was struck by the quality of the annotations in a cheap, one-volume, 19th-century edition of the complete plays—a book you’d pay $1 for at flea market. Turns out it’s the copy George Eliot and George Henry Lewes owned and annotated on nearly every page, she in pencil, he in ink, back and forth, like a conversation. That one stopped the clock.
What is the most unusual Shakespeare item in the collection?
The Garrick Chair makes me smile. Picture it: Garrick was 5’5”—his feet wouldn’t have touched the ground. Some throne. Carved out of one piece of wood? Come on.
If your retirement gift could be anything from the collection, what would you pick?
I wouldn’t. These precious things belong here. Everything I’ll take away in December is in my head.
Given the changes you’ve seen over time, what do you think the Library will be like in another 15 years?
[Laughs] I can’t tell you where the Library will be in one year, much less fifteen. I’m hopeful, because I have a pretty good sense of the place and its potential, but the way it will be defined in the future is for others to determine. But the Folger Shakespeare Library will be here, I know that, attracting an international community of scholars, because of the collection. Wherever technology goes, whatever innovations come about, people will still need to see the physical object.
If someone gave you a blank check, what’s the first thing you’d spend it on for the Folger?
I’d endow Jim Kuhn’s position as Head of Collection Information Services. I’d finish conservation of the bas reliefs. I’d endow the ofice of special events so we didn’t have to rent out space for non-Folger events. I’d create the Richard J. Kuhta Acquisitions Endowment for the purpose of acquiring association copies.
If the Folgers could come back for a visit, what would you want to show/tell them?
I’d be on my knees, thanking them for putting the word “Library” in marble on the front of the building. Then I’d introduce them to Betsy Walsh and disappear. They’d have a great time.
Would Shakespeare be shocked to find that this library exists?
Probably not. Nor would he be shocked to learn his work has been steadily performed for 400 years. I like to think that William Shakespeare was a quiet, slumpy, unassuming guy, but he was a writer with astonishing gifts, and he knew it. No, he wouldn’t be surprised. On the contrary, he might walk in the door and ask, “Why did this take until 1932?”
If you could ask Shakespeare one question, what would it be?
“So, what happened to Marlowe?”