Gail Kern Paster, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library since 2002, has announced her decision to retire on June 30, 2011.
As Director—only the sixth in the Folger’s 78-year history—Paster has emphasized four goals: increasing access and outreach, particularly through digital initiatives; strengthening the educational mission; modernizing the library's physical infrastructure; and building on the library's already strong development and financial management efforts. In support of these initiatives, she has raised more than $28 million in just eight years, a record for the Folger.
“Gail has repeatedly demonstrated why she has the respect and the admiration of her peers and colleagues,” said Paul T. Ruxin, chair of the Folger Board of Governors. “Equally important, she has won the deep affection of all of us who have had the privilege of knowing and working with her. She is the Folger’s own Ariel, our shape shifting magic spirit whose loyalty and imagination have produced extraordinary results.”
Under Paster, who first encountered the Folger collection as a doctoral student researching her thesis, new acquisitions have reached their highest level in the library’s history. Among the more than 14,000 new additions are a 16th-century manuscript on magic that completed a grimoire already in the collection; a copy of Martial’s epigrams (Paris, 1617), owned and annotated by Ben Jonson; a rare bird’s-eye etching of London (ca. 1660) by Wenceslaus Hollar; the only broadside inciting the 1849 Astor Place riot known to survive; James Northcote’s 18th-century painting, Romeo and Juliet, act V, scene III: Monument Belonging to the Capulets; and two watercolor costume designs for Derek Jarman’s 1979 film, The Tempest.
Knowing that the value of the Folger collection derives from its use, Paster has increased awareness of the collection and focused on making it more accessible to scholars, teachers, and the public, often through digital initiatives. More than 35,000 digital surrogates of collection items are now online; the Picturing Shakespeare database will launch later this year. Transatlantic collaborations like The Shakespeare Quartos Archive, led by the Folger and the Bodleian Library at Oxford, have made rare early editions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet available for the first time in a single online collection. Visitors to the Library’s Exhibition Hall can digitally thumb through a Shakespeare First Folio using a touchscreen display. Audio podcasts and video have brought Folger expertise to users around the world. Every month more than four million pages from the Folger websites are viewed.
Educational outreach has been a top priority under Paster. She created a new division dedicated solely to K–12 education and to advancing the Folger’s belief that the best way for students to understand Shakespeare is to perform Shakespeare. Folger Education’s lesson plans, student Shakespeare festivals, work with elementary age students, and groundbreaking publications have proved a perfect partner to the Folger editions of the plays—the #1 Shakespeare texts in American classrooms. Her support for the scholars who come from around the world to do research at the Folger is also unparalleled; long-term fellowships have been endowed and stipends increased under Paster, with hundreds of long- and short-term fellowships awarded and record numbers of readers making use of the collection during her tenure. Paster, who taught English at The George Washington University for 28 years, has also formed the library’s first programs for college undergraduates, a semester-long seminar on the history of the book that uses the Folger collection as a resource.
Paster has often said that all one needs to love Shakespeare is a great guide; sometimes it’s an inspiring teacher, sometimes it’s an extraordinary performance. During her tenure, the audience for public programs (plays, concerts, readings, lectures, and exhibitions) has grown by more than 25%, in part thanks to Folger-wide, multi-disciplinary explorations combining scholarly discussion, theatrical performance, music, and literature in a way that the Library is uniquely qualified to provide. Throughout, Paster has proved herself to be a tireless advocate for the Folger, leading pre- and post-show discussions, narrating special podcasts, producing documentaries for public radio, and underwriting short films.
“What excites me [and husband Jim Johnson] is access to education and the arts,” explains Washington philanthropist Maxine Isaacs. “Gail personifies that. She has taken the Folger and made it accessible to everyone, from schoolchildren to arts audiences to scholars. She has broadened the Folger’s scope and drawn people in.”
"When you try to sum up Gail's contribution to the Folger Shakespeare Library, you immediately run smack into two big problems. The first is where to start. And the second is how to stop,” said Folger board member Cullen Murphy and Vanity Fair editor-at-large. “She has bolstered the Folger's stature as a place for scholarship, but at the same time, as people in Washington know, she has raised its visibility in a far larger community—through its growing education programs, through its lectures and other public events, and of course through its extraordinary theater offerings. And she has done all this, even amid tough economic times, with unflappable grace."
That grace was called upon early in her tenure, when Paster learned that the waterproofing surrounding the Folger’s rare books vault was eroding, leaving the walls to crack and water to begin puddling on the vault floor. Studies recommended immediate action, including an extensive excavation—all the way down to the footings—and painstaking re-waterproofing. The work would take more than a year and would involve moving virtually the entire Folger collection of 600,000 around the building—sometimes several times. Throughout it all, the reading rooms remained open to scholars, seminars took place as planned, and in the Elizabethan Theatre, the show went on.
Senator Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), who worked with Paster and her Board of Governors to help secure approval of funding from the US Senate, said, “The library has become an important center of learning and appreciation of the arts because of Gail’s devoted leadership.”
“Serving as the Director of the Folger Shakespeare has been an enormous privilege for the past eight years,” said Paster in making her announcement to the Board of Governors. “Every part of the job has been deeply satisfying—from strengthening the collections and exhibitions, nurturing scholarship of the highest order, presenting great performances, to growing the Folger’s educational outreach by leaps and bounds. We are proud of our cultural importance to the nation’s capital and to students, teachers, and scholars all around the world.”
Paster continues to pursue her scholarly interests in the cultural history of the body and the emotions. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles and books. She has been a trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America and its President in 2003. Until July 2009, she served as editor of Shakespeare Quarterly, a joint publication of the Folger and GWU, where she was a Professor of English from 1974–2002.
“Gail has been an extraordinary director—to my mind the strongest in the Folger's great history,” said board member James Shapiro, author of Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 and Larry Miller Professor English at Columbia University. Fellow board member and playwright Ken Ludwig added, “Gail has become the rock star of the world of Shakespeare. The great legacy of the Folger has blossomed under her steady hand.”