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• History of the Folger
The Early Years

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The Early Years

Although the Folger was formally dedicated in 1932, work behind the scenes in the library started in 1931. Simply moving the Folgers’ collection into the new building took five months, as the small, newly hired staff unpacked more than 200,000 separate books, manuscripts, prints, playbills, paintings, and other objects from some 2,109 packing cases. Assessing and cataloging that material would take many years.


At first, following Emily Folger’s wish, the Folger had two administrative heads. The Shakespeare scholar Joseph Quincy Adams, named as the first director of research, shared leadership responsibilities jointly with the Folger’s librarian, William A. Slade, previously employed at the Library of Congress. The arrangement came to an end in 1934, when Slade returned to the Library of Congress. Adams was then named acting director. He was appointed as director in 1936.


For all its depth, the original Folger collection was limited in scope to Shakespeareana, however broadly defined. Adams and the trustees sought to expand the Folger's holdings to the entire English Renaissance. Perhaps their most important acquisition toward this end came in 1938, with the purchase of more than 8,000 books printed in England or in the English language before 1641, from the estate of the late Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth, a British newspaper publisher. Today, the Folger holds almost half of the volumes listed in the Short-Title Catalogue, or STC, of early English books, making it the third largest collection in the world, after the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Library.  A portrait of Harmsworth hangs in the vault dedicated to those volumes.


Other acquisitions followed, but soon more pressing concerns were on the way. Just one week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Adams and the trustees agreed to ship 30,000 objects from the collection in a sealed railroad car to wartime storage on the Amherst campus. By January 15, 1942, the transfer was complete. There the materials stayed until November 1944, when fears of attack receded and they returned home. During the war, the Folger remained in operation, opening its exhibition hall on Sundays as well as Saturdays and weekdays to accommodate the crowds of war workers. Although in failing health, Adams saw the Folger through the war years. He died of a heart attack in 1946.


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Thomas Hariot. A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia. Frankfurt, 1590

Chaucer. Canterbury tales. Westminster, 1477

Joseph Quincy Adams

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Early English printed books at the Folger

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