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Folger Magazine: Gail Paster on Nine Years Directing the Folger

"Surely it hasn't been that long ..."

Gail Kern Paster

Highlights from a marvelous, thoughtful, and occasionally hilarious discussion between Folger Director Gail Paster and trustee David Garner during Member Appreciation Weekend, in the words of a scholar-leader who just “wanted to pay the Folger back for all it’s given to me.”


Selected excerpts:


The Jangliness of Command

When you’re an English professor, you know where you’re going to be at 9:30 Tuesday morning because you’re going to be teaching your class. You have responsibility for your students and for the content of your lectures, there’s committee service and there’s seeing students outside of class. You are pretty much a solo practitioner. So it took some getting used to the rhythm of administration, which I think is a fifteen-minute interval. You can expect to be interrupted every fifteen minutes and you just sort of get used to the jangliness of that rhythm. And now in fact when I don’t get interrupted every fifteen minutes I think: Okay, what’s the matter? Is something going wrong here?


Seeing the World through a Seventeenth-Century Housewife's Eyes

When I go down to the vault to show visitors the books, some of my favorites are our personal Bibles, especially these tiny little psalters. Imagine you were an overworked seventeenth-century mother and manager of your household and you had had a hard day and you needed a little spiritual consolation. You had your tiny book of psalms that you could open and "look to the hills, from whence cometh your help," and you could put it in your apron, and you could carry it around with you.


"We are the Ones Asking the Questions"—And the Questions Keep Changing

It isn’t so much discovering new things, if you will, as formulating new questions, and the new questions are always there. If you think of the last forty years in scholarship, you’ve got major new intellectual trends. Think of the interest in women’s history, the interest in feminist scholarship. Think of the interest in post-colonial studies. Think about the way in which we’re constantly redefining what it is we’re looking at.


Why are we redefining what it is we’re looking at? Because we’re changing. The dialogue that we have with the past is a dialogue that we control, after all. We are the ones that are asking the questions.


So even as, in some ways, you might say that we keep circling around the same evidence—Hamlet, or the English Civil War, or any other of the aspects of the past that the Folger is peculiarly and uniquely appropriate to serve as a research base for—the questions that we’re going to ask are always going to be different.


What Dreams May Come

It seems to me that what we offer, what we can offer, to as many audiences as can access us, is that we are doing the humanities right. We are a really good example of the humanities in action. We’re supporting scholarship, we’re supporting scholars, we are acquiring books, we’re conserving books, we are teaching kids, we are teaching graduate students, we are entertaining audiences ...


When I got here, I knew from having experienced it for a lot of years that the culture of the Folger was just remarkably wonderful. Even as it had its ways of doing things, the Folger wasn’t afraid of embracing the future.



Read the full story from the summer 2011 issue of the Folger Magazine



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