Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is a major international center for scholarly research and a lively venue for exhibitions, literary programs, and the performing arts. Its acclaimed K-12 education programs have transformed the way Shakespeare is taught in American schools.
Opened April 23, 1932 on Shakespeare’s Birthday, the Folger is a gift to the American people from Henry Clay Folger, Jr., chairman of Standard Oil Company of New York (which later became Mobil), and his wife, Emily Jordan Folger. Inspired by a Ralph Waldo Emerson lecture, Mr. Folger, then a student at Amherst College, bought an inexpensive set of Shakespeare’s works. That purchase marked the beginning of a collection which today includes:
82 First Folios—the first printing of Shakespeare’s collected works—representing one-third of the world’s existing copies and the single largest collection in the world;
255,000 books, including the world’s 3rd largest collection of early English books (1475 – 1640) and its 6th largest collection of titles from 1641-1700.
55,000 manuscripts, from the late 13th through the 20th centuries.
250,000 playbills, as well as other theatrical memorabilia;
27,000 paintings, drawings, engravings and prints; and
Renaissance musical instruments, theatrical costumes, and a Shakespeare film archive.
Thousands of scholars from more than 70 institutions in 20 different countries visit the Folger’s reading rooms each year to research a wide variety of topics on Shakespeare and the Renaissance. In addition, inquiries to the website now represent more than half of the research requests annually handled by the Folger and come from scholars, students and teachers, and the general public from all 50 states as well as 39 foreign countries.
In addition to its scholarly mission, the Folger serves as a museum devoted to Shakespeare’s life and times. Over 100,000 museumgoers visit annually to view a touchscreen display of one of the library's First Folios as well as changing exhibitions drawn from the collection and accompanied by illustrated catalogs. Visitors also enjoy daily guided tours of the building’s striking architecture, which is included in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Folger’s Elizabethan Theatre, modeled after the innyard theatres popular in Shakespeare’s day, hosts more than 40,000 audience members each year. It presents a full calendar of performances and programs, from the Helen Hayes Award-winning Folger Theatre productions and Folger Poetry readings to early music concerts by the Folger Consort and family activities. It is also stage to the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction—America’s largest juried fiction prize—and its acclaimed reading series.
Believing Shakespeare is for everyone, the Folger’s K-12 education programs—beginning with its multidisciplinary “Shakespeare Steps Out” for elementary schools—advocate learning Shakespeare by doing Shakespeare. Millions of students and teachers are served annually through its festivals, guided tours, and workshops as well as groundbreaking teaching materials and publications and a Teaching Shakespeare website.
In the area of advanced scholarship, the Folger Institute—a center for the advanced study of the humanities sponsored by the Folger and a consortium of 39 universities now in its thirty-first year—provides seminars and colloquia on a wide range of early modern topics; a selection of these programs are permanently archived on the Folger website for scholarly use worldwide.
Publications have been central to the Folger since its founding, and currently range from Shakespeare Quarterly, the preeminent Shakespeare journal in the world, to the Folger Shakespeare Library editions of the plays, perhaps best-known to high-school and college students—it is the most popular Shakespeare text used in American classrooms today—as well as filmgoers who saw Al Pacino in Looking for Richard. Its exhibition catalogs are AIGA award-winners; The Folger Institute enjoys a special imprint with Cambridge University Press for works resulting from Folger conferences and institutes; and the Folger education department’s seminal curriculum series, Shakespeare Set Free. In collaboration with Octavo, the Folger recently created the first digital copy of a First Folio.
Although many Folger activities are highly visible to the public, some crucial parts of its work occur behind the scenes, most notably the treatment and conservation of rare materials by the Folger’s skilled conservators. The Folger is the only conservation laboratory in North America practicing the art of paper splitting, a technique that strengthens embrittled paper, and its chief conservator Frank Mowery was among the first in the world to computerize paper measurements used in leaf casting; his discovery is being incorporated into a new technology to aid paper conservators worldwide.
The Folger Shakespeare Library celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2007.