Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit the conversation between Erica Ciallela and Sara Schliep as part of our discussion of The Personal Librarian, the second of a two-part series.
emma poltrack (Community and Audience Engagement Program Manager, Folger Shakespeare Library): The two libraries were being established around similar times and had distinct areas of interest. Can you both speak about what kinds of interactions the Morgan and the Folger had?
Erica Ciallela (Exhibition Project Curator for Belle da Costa Greene, A Librarian’s Legacy at The Morgan Library): Greene very much didn’t want to collect things that other institutions were collecting, she wanted to collect things that set us apart. She also knew who would be best stewards and wanted to work and be a collective with other institutions. With the Folger, we do know she was contacting them to ask for images or facsimiles or photostats of images from things that were in the Folger collection rather than try to go out and get our own. She was happy with a photostat, or to send researchers to that institution.
For instance, we have one letter that shows Greene writing to the Folger about sending down our cataloging librarian to come see the Folger and “note its methods of administration, cataloging, classification shelving, etc.” She wanted to learn from what she felt other institutions were doing best. We know that she wrote the Folger a lot when we were doing an exhibition on English drama. She acknowledged we weren’t the specialists in Shakespeare, we weren’t the specialists in English drama, we were very much focused on literature. There was a lot of back and forth of her essentially calling on the Folger’s “Shakespearean expertise” for all of our label text for that exhibition. She even sends Jack Morgan’s son down to see the Folger and she was very excited he was going to go see it.
She definitely was someone who valued relationships with other institutions and didn’t view it as competing. She really felt the value of spreading the wealth of information. She knew there was enough material out there that could be housed in each institution that she didn’t need to compete. We need to all work together for researchers to really benefit. That was kind of revolutionary considering how the people who created the institutions would have felt. I don’t think Pierpont Morgan or Jack Morgan would have had that same kind of attitude; Greene was really the one who brought that to the Morgan. She wanted to create a country of these amazing scholarly resources that could then be given out to the masses.
Sara Schliep (Archivist and Cataloger, Folger Shakespeare Library): This is a really interesting period because it’s when these philanthropists are all starting to open their institutions. When the Folgers were starting and opening their building they were looking to the Huntington [Library] because they had already opened to scholars. They were asking them, “How do you do this? What is your shelving like?” I’ve seen a bunch of the correspondence with the Huntington, but not much with the Morgan from this period. We’re under construction now so I can’t go and look at our records as I would like to, but I have seen a copy of a letter that Henry wrote himself. It is a reply to a request from Belle from 1927 for the David Garrick material that was in Folgers’ collection. It’s a typical response from Henry; he says it’s not really available, dispersed across these warehouses in New York, but that he is hoping soon to “have a proper place for storing [his] collection, so that it will be accessible to all who wish to make use of it.” At the end he’s acknowledging Belle’s experience in handling and storing such material, knowing that she could appreciate his particular “dilemma.” As much as he tried to keep it quiet, people knew he was collecting these things, but because they were across these different warehouses he never really was able to fulfill those requests until the library itself was open.
ep: That’s a wonderful transition to the last question I had, which is about access: how did these libraries thought they would be used when they were being established and how has that changed?
EC: It was Pierpont’s wish on his death for the library to be a public institution and Jack honored that, but it was really Greene who facilitated it and oversaw the construction of our annex which opened in 1928. These would become our reading room and exhibition space. She was very specific in the building of our reading rooms. She wanted long tables so she could highlight all the people working together, they didn’t have to work alone if they didn’t want to. She essentially sat in every construction for the reading room and exhibition space should be set up. She wanted you to feel that you were meant to study there.
She really believed in showcasing our items for the general public and not just scholars. That was the point of having the exhibition space. In order to access our reading room both then and today, you have to write a request, sometimes you have to have someone vouch for the research you’re doing and we set up an appointment for you. We only give out one item at a time, there are handling rules, it’s really very regimented and very strict. That’s how Greene had done it from the time we opened the reading room in 1928, though I will say Greene was, and our librarians today are, inclined to lean into access, even if the project may raise some questions. At the end of the day, these are living breathing objects and we want them to be shown, we want them to be loved. And then the exhibition room was right next to the reading room, so someone who came off the street on a random Saturday couldn’t just take something off the shelf but could go in that room and see some of this amazing collection up close, first hand.
She was a little more lenient when she came to students, which is one of my favorite things. When it came to students she would plop an illuminated manuscript on the table and say, “Go at it! Look at it, flip through it!” Our conservators today would be horrified. We even had a K-12 program where she invited middle school students to come and learn about materials. When it came to the education component, she very much felt it had to be hands-on and you needed to see things not through glass and not even through a research appointment. She was very open to the universities around us. We have our own correspondence with the Huntington where Green is arguing with them–she didn’t want to send a facsimile or photostat to a single researcher she wanted to send it to the institution so that when that researcher was done, any other researcher in the area could then come access it. She felt a student should never have to come East or West and endure that cost. She’s already thinking of the cost of research and how we get these students the information they need. And so we did send copies of materials to specific institutions near researchers.
One last fact–Greene never gave a lecture because she didn’t believe in giving lectures. She always refused all requests. However, we have thank you notes from when classes would come in where she would refuse a lecture but the note would be thanking her for the two hours she spent talking to them about books. She just didn’t want that formalized structure. She really wanted people to breathe these books in.
SS: On the Folger side, there was a similar thing. There’s an exhibition hall right next to the reading room and they are really different spaces. The exhibition space was designed more for the public who could walk in; I’ve seen some of the talking points they gave the security guards to help answer questions. There were lots of people coming in and looking at things. In the letter I referenced from Henry to Belle, it gives a sense of boundless access, but he actually has a little bit more thought about that.
We get a picture of that in another letter with their consulting architect where he references “Sketch B,” which showed eight tables “giving this impression that the room is to be used as a reading-room.”
“But I doubt if this will be the case. It will not be a reading-room in the way reading-rooms are used generally, nor even as a room for study because our Library is too special in its character and the contents are so costly and limited in scope.”
He has this idea of what a reading room is, and at this time there were reading rooms in public libraries as well, so he’s really making a distinction between public libraries and this more specialized collection of rare books that is coming into being in these different institutions. He mentions the admission practices of the Lenox Library on Fifth Avenue and he thinks their advanced ticketing is an “extreme” limitation, but he also says that he doesn’t think the Folger collection “should be offered freely to all comers, and the Library should not be looked upon as a reading-room nor a comfortable rest-room.” This is interesting when we think about the space now and how it is used. As we are looking towards reopening next year, we’re excited to move away from this attitude of limited access with scholarly credentials that has been a part of the Folger throughout history. Requirements for becoming a reader are going to be much more inclusive. Instead of needing letters of recommendation, a person will only need to be 18 and have some form of an ID. We’re really excited to live up to the Shakespeare quote that is above what had been our exhibition space: “I shower a welcome on ye, welcome all.” We’re really thinking about access with our current project and we hope everyone who can will come and visit us. It’s a living collection as Erica said. These things were collected to be used and we really want to share them with everybody.
We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program
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