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The Collation

Folger collections in times of war

As you guessed, the image from last week’s Crocodile Post is a hand-drawn plan for a vault. This particular one was intended to store the Folger’s rare books during World War II.

The hand-drawn plan is the work of Stanley King, the president of Amherst College from 1938-1946. Ever since the death of Henry Folger in 1930, the Folger Shakespeare Library has been under the administrative auspices of Amherst College—Folger’s alma mater. As president of the college, King was of course deeply involved with the goal of establishing the Folger as a major research library, and he exchanged letters regularly with the first library Director, Joseph Quincy Adams. While their letters usually covered such topics as Folger guest speakers, staff salaries, and large acquisitions (Adams crows in one letter about “wiping the eyes” of Harvard and Yale when he secured particularly juicy collections of rare books ahead of their librarians), the advent of the war in Europe brought a more serious topic to light: a possible enemy threat to Washington.

Although the two men agreed early in 1940 to suspend purchasing rare material until the “European conflict” became more clear, neither mentioned the war in writing until the following year. Adams wrote to King in March of 1941, alerting him that the Library of Congress and the National Archives had received orders to make their collections ready for emergency removal. Would it be a good idea for the Folger to do the same? King was incredulous at the thought: “[y]our letter of the 13th has I think surprised me more than any letter I have ever received from the Folger Library…I regard the present possibility of any bomb dropping on the Folger Library as about as remote as the possibility of the Library being destroyed by earthquake.” Although Adams did not revisit the topic again until May, the two eventually explored several emergency plans, including the construction of a bomb shelter in the back parking lot, or removing collections to a house outside of Leesburg, VA. Experts assessing the Folger vault space made it absolutely clear that the books would need to be moved to be protected, or that a new vault would need to be constructed. After a particularly taxing discussion on the finances required for a new vault behind the library, King recommended tabling the whole venture until later. His contact in the Navy reassured him that an assault would be highly unlikely.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor in early December, however, the stakes became painfully clear to both. In his letter to King on December 10th, Adams lays out the situation plainly: they have not been able to find a suitable house in Virginia, and the new, bomb-proof vault would take three months to construct. Adams fears that it will not be possible to store the Folger materials with the Library of Congress’s items, which will shortly be moved away from D.C. He has one final suggestion:

“We might box up all the rare books and manuscripts, and ship them to Amherst. Perhaps storage could be provided for them in the Amherst College Library—dead storage, if necessary; or perhaps the books could be shelved, and the Folger staff and fellows could move in a body to Amherst. That would enable us to keep the staff together, to continue the work of cataloging, and so maintain the library as a going concern.”

Over the following days, a flurry of letters and telegrams refined the plan: the Folger’s rare books and manuscripts would be shipped to Massachusetts and stored in a specially-devised vault in the college’s library there, while the more ungainly paintings would be swiftly taken to more secure storage closer to D.C. Folger staff, the modern collections, and less-rare material would remain in Washington, where staff and researchers planned to focus on the cataloging of modern books, projects that used secondary sources, and where the library could remain open with a limited exhibition. King’s letter of December 15th includes his sketch of the proposed vault, which would be constructed inside the basement of Amherst College’s library. King was concerned about the presence of steam pipes, and so his drawing helpfully depicts the design (made in consultation with Folger librarian James McManaway) of a brick wall with ventilation shafts, meant to protect the rare books from any steam leaks and intrusions by repairmen, but also allow for air circulation.

Adams responded via telegram:


By December 31st the books were packed, and loaded into two private train cars with armed guards on January 5th. On January 6th, the materials were loaded into the vault in Amherst, where they remained until 1945, despite plans to open some up for research. A triumphant press release trumpets their return to the public eye in D.C after three years away, but this didn’t stop critics from lambasting the Folger for shutting them away. A folder in the Folger Institutional Archives labeled “Folger Library Defense Program,” as well as the correspondence files with King, is all that remains to outline this tense month in our library’s history.

Little could Adams know that in 1951, a mere 6 years later, Folger staff would once again feel compelled to send a large number of First Folios into protective hiding; this time as a result of the Cold War. This time, they did not return until 1959, although we do know that scholars such as Charlton Hinman were able to travel to Amherst to consult them. As far as we know, collection items have never left the Folger due to a threat of national security since. In 1951, under duress to come up with a new defense plan, Folger director Louis B. Wright commented:

“Since history does not give us any hope of a world dedicated to permanent peace, the future is likely to see recurring crises in which the danger of destruction is ever greater…[i]n our planning we should consider what the Folger Library’s role ought to be in recurring periods of tension like the present—periods which may be even longer and during which the danger may be greater. We must ask ourselves whether the Folger can afford to run into hiding with each new crisis, or whether it can devise means of staying in business in times of danger…if Washington continues as the capital and the Folger Library remains standing, it ought to be a symbol of learning, and more than a symbol, an actual institution for the advancement of learning.”

Our doors are, as always, open.

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