Roundtable Reflections on the 50th Anniversary
In fall 2019, on the eve of the Folger Institute’s fiftieth anniversary—and in the lead-up to a major building renovation project that would take our programming on the road—the Institute hosted a roundtable discussion, or a set of “Field Notes,” for our annual reception.
We all wondered about the effects on our intellectual communities of new technologies and of more dispersed gatherings away from our beloved reading room and seminar rooms. Now, in recent months, we’ve experienced all that and more. We’ve experienced, too, the resilience, adaptivity, and forward-looking nature of the community of scholars who work at the Folger. We hope you enjoy this glimpse into the discussion then, as we continue to chart new paths towards refreshed goals.
“[In the 2020-21 academic year] we will be celebrating our 50th anniversary. And that seems like a particularly good time to pause and reflect on what we’ve been doing and how we’ve been doing it and what we might do as we move forward into the future.
Our concern has always been to gather interdisciplinary communities in the company of printed books, manuscripts, and other documents and types of evidence from the early modern world. So that people can make collections-based discoveries to refresh our understanding about the period and to set and energize scholarly agendas, which we hope will then influence work in the college classroom and beyond.
[Our instincts from the beginning] have been to focus on partnerships, to focus on collectivity, to be consultative, widely and deeply. And an important aspect of those consultations has always been the moment of evaluation and thinking about lessons learned, applying them to the next cohort of fellows, or the next set of scholarly programs.”
“[One of the Folger Institute’s obligations] is to think about the technologies. Not only the technologies that we’re interested in researching, but the technologies we need in order to undertake what the [Folger] Institute is about . . . one of the challenges that I think the Folger Institute is going to face over the next while is what do the new technologies actually mean for the nature of our collaborative communal endeavors. Are we going to require physical presence in DC, or wherever the event is, or are we going to begin to imagine different kinds of events that will take place virtually, that may reduce our carbon footprints and not require us to undergo the ordeal by plane travel-- which gets worse month by month, week by week, day by day-- and may rethink what the group is who can be assembled and worked with.”
“[Folger Institute seminars] integrate the different levels at which we work with advanced undergraduates, graduate students, post docs, junior, and senior colleagues. At a time of what looks like retrenchment of the early modern, the openness of the Folger Library and Institute to a broad scholarly community seems especially important.”
“It’s not uncommon among historians of science-- we tend to gravitate to collections that are put together precisely for the purpose of collecting scientific material. And I realize what a huge mistake that was.
In the seminar [I directed on ‘Science in the Early Modern Atlantic World’], we explored changes in natural philosophy and how these changes were reflected in a wide range of cultural products that were produced and consumed throughout the Atlantic world. So we engaged in material that was in Portuguese, in Spanish, in French, and of course in English. We paid careful attention also to hybrid cultural products that reflected interactions with indigenous cultures and the changing European understanding of the natural world.
I think that way, if we approach the collection thinking about an interconnected world, a world that talked to each other, talked across languages and across religions in particular, and across cultures, that it is almost a natural, very organic home for things like Iberian studies.”
“I was part of a kind of series of events that went under the name ‘Early Modern Digital Agendas’ at the Folger. Both first as a participant and then invited back a few years later as an instructor on social networks. But it was there that I encountered some of the things that led to essentially the publication of my second book project. Some of the insights happened when I was sitting and listening to Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore talk about their ongoing digital work.
They were a few years ahead of everybody else in seeing the potential for digital tools to expand our understanding of early modern literature. Some of it happened because I was sitting at a table with other young scholars and just looked over someone’s shoulder and saw that they were using a corpus tool, a linguistically annotated corpus of early modern texts. And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And just that kind of interaction really changed the course of my scholarly inquiry. So putting people together, putting them where the books are, and in the case of the ‘Early Modern Digital Agendas,’ adding in a new kind of technology that also transforms inquiry.”
“Part of what it means to do pre-modern critical race studies, I think, is attending to the political and the activist force of the field’s intellectual genealogies in critical race theory and recognizing race, to quote [Margo] Hendricks, as a ‘socioeconomic process,’ and not just as an event. So in effect, it’s to necessitate the reexamination of methodologies and praxis. Not just in the field, but in fact in the discipline as a whole.
So as I think about praxis, I think what’s really extraordinary about the Folger Institute and really exciting for its work with pre-modern critical race studies, is a way in which it affords really invaluable opportunities for critical and methodological conversation, and just as importantly, different kinds of community and forms of community building. In the past few years, many of us, myself included, have been really fortunate to participate in fantastic programming [at the Folger Institute] that engages closely with critical race studies.”
“I’ve been able to do four symposia with the Center for the History of British Political Thought. . . . I’ve thought about what was political thought, where was political thought, political thought in times of crisis, and most recently, political personhood. And people think of intellectual history in my field as . . . a stuffy history of ideas only open to a small percentage. But what I always find at these symposia is this unbelievable multidisciplinary culture that’s been very helpful. . . . When I come to a Folger Institute [seminar], I find people who are talking from their own disciplines, but in a multi and interdisciplinary context. And I just don’t think there’s many places like that in the field.”
“The thing that really came to the fore in [curating the Nobility and Newcomers in Renaissance Ireland exhibition] was that difficulty of linking content, which is what the [Folger] Institute is about, and outreach in public engagement, which other parts of the Folger are about . . . and so we actually created a new dialogue model that we now run with a number of public partners in Hartford. We have a high school version of it that is run through the Connecticut Department of Education. And that is, in so many ways, entirely a product of the risk that the Folger took to allow us to reconceptualize the relationship between England and Ireland in that critical moment of colonization.”
“One conviction I have as a result of the conversation here is that as a stable institution, it’s our obligation to remain challenged and to challenge others when it comes to the future of our field. I think we’re living in a period of incredible, ferocious political intensity, and it’s just blocks away. It is a time when I think all of us in an increasingly diverse set of perspectives and scholars have to bring with us everything that we’ve lived and experienced, and make that part of the questions we ask. As that circle widens, as it is widening, I think that is how we are going to understand where we connect with the world that is not just blocks away, but on your campus and in the communities that our work touches.
This whole institution is thinking about what the widest circle of research and inquiry could be. And I think it’s important, too, whenever you mix streams of different types of expertise and different types of experience, we really do have to build trust, and trust is built face to face. Now that really is where successful collaborations come from.
That trust, to know that the room is ready for the conversation, comes from complete and total commitment to the community and recommitment to the intensity that we, I think, have to have for the next fifty years.”
“[Folger Institute programming] helps to level the playing field across North America. For those of us who are writing and researching in the field, but don’t have the same resources as others, it gives us a way to get the resources we need to be a part of the conversation.”
“A great library isn’t a great library because of the materials it holds, even when they’re as astonishing as the materials that make up the Folger. It’s an extraordinary place because of what it enables to happen. And one of those things is something I’d want to call community. What I have recognized in my experiences of Folger Institute events is . . . the building of community. Be it the community of members of a seminar across a semester-long experience or through an intense weekend.”
- Peter Holland
“The archive is crucial, but it’s necessarily incomplete. And in attending to these contingencies and in thinking so capaciously about what the archive reveals and what it can’t, the larger architecture of the [Folger] Institute’s programming is, I think, really vital in supporting the field in framing and furthering our inquiry into the epistemes of difference.”
Executive Director of the Folger Institute
Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Toronto
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Mount Saint Mary's University
McMeel Family Professor in Shakespeare Studies, Department of Film, Television, and Theatre, University of Notre Dame
Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Connecticut
Associate Professor, History of Science and Technology, Johns Hopkins University
Provost’s Distinguished Professor, Department of English, Georgetown University
Stanley Elkin Professor in the Humanities, Professor of English, and Adjunct Professor of History, Washington University in St. Louis