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The Collation

In memoriam: Betsy Walsh

photo by Julie Ainsworth

Elizabeth “Betsy” Walsh (1953-2017)

We are devastated to announce that Betsy Walsh, our beloved head of reader services here at the Folger, passed away on Friday, September 22, 2017.

Betsy was an inseparable part of the Folger—indeed, for many of us, she was the embodiment of the Folger Reading Room. She worked here for 43 years—about half of the Folger’s existence since it opened in 1932. During that time, she was a guide and friend to many readers, high school English teachers, exhibition curators, colleagues, and a long line of directors. Her knowledge of the Folger was unparalleled, as was her tactful, humorous way of recounting the history of this place and its people.

Betsy was born and raised in Washington, DC, and joined the Folger as a circulation page the summer before her senior year at Trinity College, where she was an English major. She seems to have been at home at the Folger immediately. “I liked it,” she recalled. “I liked the people and the work.” She worked part-time at the Folger as she earned a master’s degree in library science at the University of Maryland. She then became a full-time reference assistant at the Folger. She was appointed head of reader services in 1986.

Betsy worked on numerous exhibitions and other publications connected to the Folger’s collections. Her knowledge of the Folger’s history and collections were unparalleled—something which both readers and staff could use to their full advantage. Not only did her steel-trap memory mean that she could recall what precise copy of a book was used in a particular tour (often with the call number!), but she could give someone exact directions to find the material they were looking for. She would say something like “Go to the cabinets by the table, bottom drawer, third folder, it was a typescript letter on yellow typing paper.” And you would go to the cabinet and pull out the folder and lo and behold, the information that you needed was staring you in the face.

But even beyond her prodigious knowledge, it is Betsy’s warmth and good cheer that will be most missed in the Reading Room. She had a way of putting everyone, from a wide-eyed graduate student to the most senior scholar, at ease; this ability has made the Folger Reading Room a welcoming place for scholars of all stripes. We can only hope to continue the excellent example that she set for us all.

The other thing that will be sorely missed are her stories. Betsy was a consummate storyteller and her tales of the Folger will live on. We would like to invite you to share your memories—your stories—of Betsy in the comments below. We can think of no more fitting tribute.

For information regarding funeral services and all future memorial events, please see the memorial on our main website.



Sigrid and I were so saddened to learn of Betsy Walsh’s untimely passing. She was our North Star and walking card catalog for the Folger collection. There seemed to be nothing too obscure for her to turn up at need. She will be sorely missed by all who knew her, not least, those of us, like Sigrid and me, who associated her indelibly with the Folger Shakespeare Library and the personification of helpful friendship.

vinton Cerf — September 26, 2017


My husband Jim and I were so shocked and saddened to hear of Betsy Walsh’s death. In my many years as the Folger Institute Representative from SUNY at Buffalo and our several stays as working scholars at the Folger, she simply always helped us. Most recently, during the 2016 Shakespeare commemorative year, I had a query to her from afar about how many municipalities could boast both public and private collections of all four of the Shakespeare seventeenth-century Folios, which she answered knowledgeably, immediately and with great good cheer. She put up endlessly with my problems with the Wi-Fi and with my absent-minded trying to get out of the Reading Room without an exit pass. She had some mobility problems and so did I, and we commiserated, and hoped we’d get better. She always asked after my research and my family. The place won’t be the same without her.

Barbara Bono — September 27, 2017


I am very sorry to hear about Betsy. From my first visiting fellowship at the Folger in 1990 to the most recent one in 2014, Betsy was always there, always so welcoming, so helpful, so knowledgeable, so approachable. I will always remember her with pleasure, and I am sure she will be sorely missed.

David Greer — September 27, 2017


I had the great pleasure of working for Betsy for 4 years as the Registrar and the experience of a lifetime when she and I road tripped with Joan Morrison to a colleague’s wedding – truly a wonderful person!

Karen Greene — September 27, 2017


I was devastated to hear about Betsy’s passing. I worked in the Reading Room as a Reference Assistant from 1989-1995 and couldn’t have asked for a better boss. It was my first job and I loved working there. Betsy was a large part of why I loved that job and I will always treasure my memories of her and the library.

Kathleen Stewart — September 28, 2017


A dear friend called the Folger “nirvana”; for me, it was and is my “happy place,” and Betsy Walsh was a big part of that ambience–from her warmth and friendliness and fascination with even the most arcane of research subjects to that welcoming smile you could always count on when she looked up and saw you approaching. Her knowledge of the collections was astonishing, and her ability to suggest lines of enquiry that you hadn’t considered awe-inspiring. I have known and admired this lady, whom I considered a friend, for the better part of 25 years, and though circumstances have prevented me from availing myself of her sunshine in recent years, I miss her profoundly already . . . and it will be a strange experience, not to see her at her post next time I visit the Reading Room. God rest your good soul, my friend!

Carol Barton — September 28, 2017


Dreadfully sad news. My first visit to the Folger was about five years ago; she was as welcoming and knowledgeable as could be and, to my amazement, remembered me whenever I came back. In many ways the heart of the Folger – she will be remembered and the loss of her cheering presence lamented.

Marie-Louise Coolahan — September 28, 2017


I’m so sorry to hear about Betsy Walsh’s passing. When I was a Folger intern in 2009, she was always a pleasant and supportive colleague and, afterwards, when I returned to the library on many occasions as a researcher, I benefitted greatly from her knowledge and expertise. In such an illustrious institution as the Folger, she could have been snooty and gotten away with it. Instead, she was always informative, cheerful, and helpful. Condolences to those closest to her.

Kim McLean-Fiander — September 28, 2017


I’m so sorry to learn of Betsy Walsh’s death. From 1999, when I started my dissertation in the Folger stacks, to 2012, the time of my most recent trip there, Betsy Walsh was a guiding light at multiple levels. Her great humor and good will, together with her submarine-deep knowledge of the Folger catalog and stacks, made her invaluable. Although I made multiple trips to the Folger as a graduate student, I couldn’t travel as often as a faculty member, and so once there was a five-year gaps between my visits. My first day in the Reading Room after that long absence was punctuated by Betsy, who leaned down to me at my desk and said, “Welcome back to the Folger, Angela–we haven’t seen you in a while.” I couldn’t believe she remembered me at all, much less by name. Later during that trip, I told her about my favorite memory of her: years earlier, she had said to me one spring afternoon, after I commented how nice the weather was that day, “Let’s just take all the rare books outside!” She laughed at my memory of our conversation, and it was just one of those beautiful human moments that are extraordinarily precious. I will miss her sunny, smart, and deeply humane presence at the Folger, but I remain grateful for her example: she humbly helped other people see the wonder in the smallest, rarest things.

Angela Balla — September 28, 2017


The Reading Room will never be the same. On every visit to the Folger over the past forty years, I have always looked forward to greeting by a smiling Betsy Walsh who helped in a myriad of ways. She recruited a wonderful staff that helped her make the Library “Scholar’s Heaven,” as I frequently described it. Like so many others, I will sorely miss Betsy, who will difficult if not impossible to replace.

Jay Halio — September 28, 2017


Betsy’s many kindnesses to the teachers participating in the Teaching Shakespeare Institute are a particularly dear memory for me. By providing teachers an infinite variety of paths into and through the collection, she transformed them into rare book and manuscript evangelists. Who knows how far her influence will travel? I like to think that there are present-day students, lit up by the materials their teachers present, who will go on to shape the discipline in the long shadow of Betsy’s warm and welcoming spirit.

Ellen MacKay — September 29, 2017


I am made so very sad by this news. Betsy was a luminous presence in the Reading Room. Her knowledge and love of the material in the collections was vast and she was always eager to share that with readers. She was generous to all. I will never forget her kindness at giving my parents an impromptu tour of the reading room when they came to visit during my first fellowship at the library, and showing them a book owned by Henry VIII in which he had written, “This book is mine,” which had been called up by a reader. Mostly, I will remember her stories of the library and it’s readers, always told with equal amounts of humor and affection.

Denise Walen — September 29, 2017


I first met Betsy soon after I began work as a docent at the Folger, and I got to know her quite well as I worked on a history of the docent corps. She always greeted me with a smile, and she was a font of information! I could have sat and listened to her recollections all day. If she didn’t know it, it wasn’t worth knowing. I sure am going to miss her.

J. C. McElveen — September 30, 2017


I was very saddened to read of Betsy’s death. It is still hard to adjust to her not being in the reading room and will be even more difficult to know she has really departed, not just from the Folger. She was a gracious and dignified lady; she took a warm personal interest in those who came on fellowships. Twice I was visited by family (once my daughter, a second time wife and daughter) and both times Betsy provided a guided tour that they still remember vividly. Betsy was more than just the custodian of the reading room – she knew the collections well herself and made valuable suggestions to me. She is sorely missed.

David Trim — October 1, 2017


Sad news indeed. Betsy was very kind and selfless. She often came to work early and stayed late to make sure materials would be ready for the readers especially since so many of them were from out of town and had limited time at the Folger. One Christmas during my four years (1993 – 1997) as Registrar an anonymous donor gave the library a monetary gift intended for Betsy. She shared the gift by dividing it among all members of the reading room staff. Betsy’s habit of giving to others extended beyond the Folger. She was a surrogate daughter to a number of elderly ladies who belonged to her church. Betsy drove them for their weekly grocery shopping and helped them with other tasks. This was part of her weekend routine for years. Thinking of others was second nature to Betsy. A great many people, including me, will always remember her.

David Ressa — October 1, 2017


Betsy Walsh was a remarkable colleague, confidante, and mentor. My heart goes out to all current and former Folger staff and Readers.

Jim Kuhn — October 2, 2017


I had a warm welcome from Betsy on my first visit more than thirty years ago, and her friendship linked together many visits over the years. The kind of collective memory someone as warm and knowledgeable as Betsy can give is as important as books, bricks and mortar.

David Norbrook — October 4, 2017


Betsy was a beacon: whenever I stepped into the “Old” Reading Room, i knew I was home, and that was exactly how she welcomed me. My favorite Betsy story: one day, after many years of visits, I happened to mention a current focus on _Titus Andronicus_. Betsy beckoned me into the Sanctum Sanctorum of the vault and asked if I would like to see THE quarto. She handed it to me and explained why we don’t wear gloves to handle it. I was afraid to breathe on it–or sneeze, or drop it. I just stood there awed by her trust, and even after decades of visits, I had once again that wide-eyed “Folger Newbie” look that many of us had on first visit as a grad student. Betsy stood behind me so I wouldn’t see her careful supervision (of course!), and when I turned around to hand the volume back to her, she smiled that Betsy smile that said “I know–and you’re welcome.” I didn’t NEED to see that quarto–my research that day did not require it. It was just a little gift of a moment that Betsy knew would make an indelible memory. I tell my undergraduate students this story to hint at the pleasures that await serious and meaningful research. They get it. Thank you, Betsy, for decades of perfect stewardship and invaluable support.

Naomi Conn Liebler — October 5, 2017


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