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Our story

Henry Clay Folger and his wife, Emily Jordan Folger, established the Folger Shakespeare Library as a gift to the American people, after decades of assembling the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials. It opened in 1932.

Expanding collections and programs

After opening, the Folger steadily expanded its holdings to become a world-class research center on the early modern period, while remaining the premier center for Shakespeare studies and resources outside of England.

The Folger’s public outreach programs, beginning in the library’s early decades with exhibitions, lectures, and publications, have also grown over time.

Why we are in Washington, DC

Emily Folger wrote of Henry Folger’s belief that Shakespeare “is one of our best sources, one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought, our faith and our hope.” This belief in the deep connection between Shakespeare and America is the reason the Folger Shakespeare Library is located in the nation’s capital.

The Folgers worked closely with architect Paul Philippe Cret to create a marble building which reads like a book, and whose placement testified to the hope that Washington, DC, would become the nation’s civic and cultural capital.

History of our collection

The Folger collection began in 1889 with Henry Folger’s first purchase of a rare book, a copy of the 1685 Fourth Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. By the time the collection was transported to the new library, it amounted to 200,000 items.

In 1938, the library acquired the collection of the late Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth, comprising more than 8,000 rare books printed in England between 1475 and 1640. Together with later acquisitions, the Harmsworth purchase expanded the Folger’s focus beyond Shakespeare studies to include virtually all aspects of the early modern period in Europe.

From 1948 to 1968, Folger Director Louis B. Wright added substantial materials from the Renaissance in Europe, acquiring 22,000 continental books and 19,000 more English books.

The Folger continues to make new acquisitions of rare material today.

Our connection with Amherst College

In 1930, the library was placed in trust of Amherst College, Henry Folger’s alma mater. The Folger Shakespeare Library and its independent Board of Governors remain proud of the continuing connection to Amherst College, whose Trustees manage the endowment of the institution.