About the forum
Greg Prickman, Eric Weinmann Librarian and Director of Collections, led an informal, open conversation on December 13, 2019, about the current state and future plans of the Folger Shakespeare Library, joined by Associate Librarians and Curators Caroline Duroselle-Melish, Heather Wolfe, Julie Swierczek, and Michele Lee Silverman.
The forum was designed as an opportunity for researchers to hear directly from Collections leadership about research support at the Folger, arrangements during the upcoming building renovations, exhibition and programming plans, and a glimpse at what the Folger will look like when it reopens.
Summary of comments, questions, and answers
The purpose of this informal gathering is to give you as many answers as we can, but we also will be keeping track of the questions that we still need to answer that you are identifying for us. This is the first time we’re having a meeting like this, but it will not be the last; the plan is to do this on an academic schedule—spring, summer, fall. We will host a get-together where we can update everyone on how things are going and continue to answer questions.
If at any time you have questions, please let Greg know. He is the point person to answer questions at any time in the next few years. Don’t feel like you’re bothering us. If something is on your mind, it’s likely to be on our mind as well and we want to know and to be able to answer as best we can.
Where we are
Here’s a snapshot of where we’re at right now. Some of this work isn’t very visible, but it has consumed an enormous amount of Collections (formerly known as Central Library) staff time and effort. One of those projects is barcoding. We are barcoding the rare collection so each item receives one. It had not been done before and is no mean feat to accomplish that. Julie Swierczek has been heading that project, led largely by the Cataloging team. We are on track to finish this project before construction, and it will enable us to have item-level inventory control over the whole collection. The modern/open stacks are already barcoded. The barcodes are not being physically affixed to the items, but rather going on acid-free paper flags that go with/in the item.
Another area where there’s been a lot of effort is in the Reading Room. We anticipated that our use would increase as we got into the end of this year, and that has been the case. With the systems we now have, we’re able to gather data about use and activity and be able to study that over time, which has been valuable to us as we’re planning. Over the last three months, the increase in total visits has been notable. The other notable thing is the number of items people have been calling and the pace at which they are getting through them. The back of house of that is an enormous flow of material through a process that has been demanding a lot of our Researcher Services staff.
Once a researcher comes to the Folger, they come back an average of ten more times a year. Most people get started right away in the morning. The use does increase slightly as the week goes on—Friday is a busy day for us. Spikes in activity are associated with programming (Education, Institute events, SAA 2019, etc.), which we know in advance and can plan for. The trend over time is that the average non-programming reading room use tends to remain fairly steady. We are keeping track of what the activity is like in those spaces and how we can best serve people’s needs and how we can best plan ahead to make sure we’re ready when we need to be.
The other thing going on is phase boxing and stabilizing collection materials in preparation for moving. Led by our Conservation team, this has required an enormous amount of time and materials.
What’s coming next
The last day of reading room service is Saturday, January 4. At that point, the Folger closes for up to 24 months (the theater still remains open through March). [Please note: due to the pandemic, the Folger is currently scheduled to reopen in 2023.] For Collections, all of our attention is focused on the safety and security of the collection, and there are a number of things we’ll be undertaking to ensure that. But we are not really going to be talking about it. Many have questions about where the collection will be and how accessible it will be, and we’re entering into a period where our #1 priority has to be the safety and security of the collection. We’re going to do the work that we have to do, but we won’t be talking about it. You can always ask us questions, but if the response is, “I’m sorry, we can’t talk about that,” that’s the reason.
New accessible entrances on either side of the building will lead to two new gallery spaces underneath the plinth that will hold far more materials than we’ve ever had the capacity to display at one time. We’re working to make that a very special, non-intimidating, accessible place where we can welcome the public into the work that happens here. If your destination is the reading room, you’ll head upstairs from there. There will be some reconfiguration but for the most part, the spaces currently existing will be familiar. The building will for the first time be fully accessible with elevator access to all points, which is a major goal of the project we’re taking on.
In addition to the imagery you see of the planned work, we’ll be doing work in the vaults and other collections spaces to make sure we have everything designed, configured, and updated to the absolute best that we can make it: HVAC, fire suppression, etc. This is also a major goal of this project, but you won’t see that work in the architect renderings. This work will allow us to renew our commitment to the collection since space is limited and the collection is growing. We intend to make sure that it continues to grow on site.
What to expect when we reopen in the new space
The reading rooms will be reconfigured, which will change patterns of use. The Paster Reading Room will become the primary reading room. What we know as the Bond Reading Room is going to be reconfigured and part of the space will be devoted to reader-accessible space that can be used for group work, consultation with staff, and other kinds of collaborative use, like groups coming in for programs. This has already happened where a group will come in to Bond and we have something set up there for them to work with. This will make that a little easier, both for the groups to do that work, and also for everyone else using materials in the Reading Room.
As part of that, we’re going to be getting new furniture for the Reading Room that is more efficient, has power available so no one is on the floor finding an outlet, and is more ergonomic. The lighting will be vastly improved for the use of materials (the lighting generally will remain as ambient as it is). We have not selected furniture or finalized an arrangement. We have not even finalized what our expected capacity will be—that is work to come and that we hope will be informed by your feedback in terms of what you need while you’re working. There are any number of unusual circumstances that people encounter when working with materials—oversize items, for example—and we will be able to accommodate use of those. Any information that you can provide us about how you do your work and how we can meet those needs will be appreciated and we will have a process by which you can ask.
In terms of capacity, if you count seats, between the reading rooms currently, where we emerge on the other end of this may be a reduction in seats. On the other hand, the amount of space available to us is relatively significant. We can use the space better for more people and we’re studying how to do that (so there is no floorplan available of how that will work). In Bond, the space in the room that’s not configured for group work will become staff workspace for Collections staff. That is going to allow us to bring staff and readers in close proximity and bring staff into locations where their work can be done in such a way that they have access to things that are difficult now.
In terms of space for researchers, we are making the commitment at this stage that we will not be turning away anyone who is here to use materials. What that means on heavy traffic days (days with Institute or Education events) is if we sense that the capacity in the reading room is not going to meet our needs, we will open auxiliary reading spaces with staff and materials. We have that ability and the ability to both plan ahead for it and to respond in the moment. This collection is here for you to use and when you need it, we are going to accommodate your use and your needs.
During the next two years
During this project, the collection will not be accessible for a period of time. We are working very hard on some means of providing some limited forms of access over the course of time that the construction is taking place. We will keep you posted. We are not ready to announce what that may mean.
One thing to emphasize: the staff will be here. The staff will be working and we have a lot of work to do, but we are here for you while this building is not accessible to you. Anything that we can do to help you with the work you’re doing, we need to know about so that when we can address those needs, we’re ready to do so. Any other kind of reference help that you need, we are here and are working on additional means by which we can communicate. Some of our electronic resources will be available offsite when this location is not accessible. As you can imagine, these are complicated negotiations with a lot of different vendors, so we are establishing the parameters of what that use looks like. We will be able to send a list out once we finalize some things. The goal is to keep that material as accessible to you as we possibly can in the interim.
In addition to this meeting, we are also going to be hosting other types of get-togethers while we don’t have access to this space. That’s true for the research community, that’s true for other aspects of the Folger as well. Folger Theater will be out on the road over the next two years in various locations and there will be other programming. We don’t want our community to drift away and vanish. To the extent that we can provide the means for people to get together as the Folger community, we are going to do so.
We are working on some partnerships with local institutions which may in some cases result in the ability for certain materials to be consulted in those spaces. This is not material that we’re going to be retrieving (this is not a means by which we will pull a book back, let you see it, and then return it), but rather material we’re going to dedicate to that space, so it’s material that is being consulted over a long span of time. If you have questions about that, get in touch with Greg and we will see what might be possible or available.
Digitization is going to continue. Julie Swierczek, Associate Librarian for Collection Description and Imaging, has sent a communication about getting requests in, and what we’re doing at this stage is gathering that information together to know what the needs are. We don’t have a hierarchical queue of what the sequence will be, but this allows us to plan for how we can structure the imaging needs that we can identify now. There may be periods where imaging goes dark because of equipment or staff moving, but we are going to endeavor to keep that going, both in terms of requests and other types of project work as we can.
We will try to provide updates when and where we can. We will have many demands on our time as we get into 2020, so we will endeavor to get information out when possible. If you have questions, please let Greg know as they occur to you. We will have the mechanisms to get those answers to you. Please don’t wait and hope that we send out an update. It does help us to know what people want to know.
The final point is that we’ve experienced some rumors already about what’s going to happen and what things may be like. Be careful—sometimes the way information is circulated is not accurate or gets out of context and misconstrued. If you hear something and you think, “why would they do that??,” ask us, please, and we can get to the bottom of it and give you reliable information.
Q: There’s a rumor that the tea room—and 3:00 tea—won’t exist when the Folger reopens. Is this true?
A: The tea room is not going away. It will be in place, as is, when we reopen, and we will still be providing tea services—and the means for you to gather every day—for researchers. We love this place and we love the traditions that have been established in this place. Our goal is to enhance accessibility and access while keeping the traditions that you appreciate; you may even have more options.
One of the things that you may have heard about is the Great Hall: there will be some type of food service provided there. There will be tables and comfortable spaces to sit, places for you to work if you’re doing the type of work that can be done out there. That’s a general repurposing, but the traditions that we enjoy as staff and readers aren’t going away.
Tea the liquid beverage, and tea the fellowship and community, is not going away.
Q: What will be the accessibility to Collections staff now that they will be working in Bond? It’s exciting that the staff will be more accessible to us researchers, but we want to be cognizant of giving them the time and space to do their own very important work.
A: We are not encouraging you to knock on the glass! The intention is not to collide people together, but to recognize that there is a fairly regular exchange happening back and forth, and this will make that easier. It will still require planning and courtesy—we don’t want to interrupt you and your work either. The staff space in Bond will be secure with controlled access but arranging meetings and opportunities to consult with staff will be easier than ever.
Q: To clarify on the group work you’re talking about, there are already two seminar rooms that aren’t in use all week. Why can’t those be used [instead of creating new spaces and dedicating space in the reading rooms to collaborative work]?
A: The seminar rooms are frequently in use, and we are creating new spaces because there’s an increasing demand for collaborative work by readers and by groups that are using collection material. The key is that these will be new spaces to work together on rare collection material in a secure area—we are currently limited in spaces that are appropriate for consulting rare material together. Our current seminar rooms are inadequate for rare materials and the safe delivery of that material in a collaborative space. Currently we sometimes put different rare displays in different rooms and move groups among them, and more space will allow us to show multiple displays for large groups more safely and effectively.
The reconfiguration of the reading rooms is happening for a number of reasons, including the need for staff space (we have put in an enormous amount of work over many years investigating many options, which has gotten us to this point).
There is an increase in the amount of scholarly work overall that is done collaboratively with rare material. These rooms when not in use for large groups will also be available for use for readers in smaller numbers (groups of two or three, for example, conversing with your co-editor) so they don’t have to sit silently side-by-side if they want the option to talk throughout the day. We’re creating much more flexible space to allow for the sorts of conversations and work that aren’t just co-editors but all kinds of collaborations, even ones we haven’t imagined yet because we haven’t had the right space for it to happen.
We don’t want to be constrained by practices that have existed; we don’t want to say “this is working the way it does and therefore it should stay that way forever.” We’re saying “it does work the way it does and we want to make sure we can support that, but we also want to have opportunities to grow and embrace new forms of scholarship and working that are becoming more and more common in academia.”
Q: These big changes are never just about space but also about practices and institutional priorities. When the dust settles, will the Folger Institute and research as they’ve come to sustain our whole field be continued to be supported financially in a comparable way? Or is part of this change a shift in the way that resources are allocated, away from research and toward more public practices?
A (from Kathleen Lynch, Executive Director of the Folger Institute, who was in attendance): Do not fear. We can emphatically say we are fine and there is no threat whatsoever or mixing up of commitments to the Institute and to Folger research and Collections generally in the emergence of some new additional priorities.
Q: Most of the new collaborative work being done involves mixed media or new technical support. Do you envision new kinds of technology and technical support for collaborative work?
A: We will have (both in the Bond space and in other spaces) enhanced and improved capability to bring other kinds of tools into the process. There’s a whole range of what’s possible, and this is one of those places where we’ll be seeking your input on what you would like to have at hand and the ability to do. We face the situation right now where if a scholar who is here needs to make a call on Skype or Zoom with another researcher, it’s difficult to accommodate that sometimes and we have to book a conference room or find some other place where that can happen. We’re going to have much better ability to support you onsite through the whole lifecycle of that kind of activity.
Q: What’s going to be happening with the staff and initiatives on the inside through the next two years, especially with digital affordances and collections? We know you’ll be busy with changing the space, but what else will be happening?
A: The way we see this is as a period of opportunity. There are some things that will be coming up in terms of digital access that will be pretty exciting, some relaunches with enhanced content and abilities, and we are going to be continuing to digitize. This is not even related to the renovation and expansion: as a core principle, we want to continue to be working towards more digital access, more content, more quickly. Over the course of this period, there are some things that we’ll be able to do with more staff that we can allocate toward some of these projects.
(Additional answer from Julie Swierczek) We have great plans—one of the things that will happen while we’re closed is that any library with any catalog always needs a good cleaning. One of the things we’ll do is a big data push and normalize things that have gotten a bit wonky over time. For example, all of our Early English Book Online records have to be replaced because the URL changed. The same thing goes with Imaging—we’re going to rethink our process, image requests, and pricing. We’ve got a list of things to do while we’re closed that will last us for 17-18 years. One of the great things is that while we’re not open to the public, we can get a lot of our Researcher Services staff to lend a hand with different initiatives. We have big plans that are not necessarily going to be showy things that you’ll notice, but they’ll build a foundation moving forward.
Q: Is one of those things connecting Aeon with Hamnet?
A: Yes! There are a couple of other things to improve on as well, including updating the Hamnet interface.
Q: Will there be an element of these fora that will update us on the elements of that work going on, especially with digital collections?
Q: More university libraries are becoming points of access to other collections (the Huntington and British Museum, for example). Will we have more access to your system so that we can access, say, the Huntington collection a little more easily now?
A: That is an excellent question and our goal is increased access to the materials you need. I don’t have an answer for you at the moment, but that’s a great thing for us to look into what we can do about that.
Q: You mentioned potential partnerships with other institutions in the area to help us through the diaspora. Can you say anything more about what institutions and what kind of systems and services might be available?
A: The primary partner for consulting collections will be the Library of Congress. We are in the midst of concluding arrangements with them for use of certain spaces, including reading room use. They don’t have a lot of space for collection materials so we will be able to have some items over there for people that have known specific work on a few items that will take years to complete. If you have work that falls under that category, let Greg know. We’ll have to see how we can manage the demand versus availability, but we’re also talking with them about other ways we can use spaces together in a way that will obviously have to follow their procedures, but the status as Folger reader is something that will be maintained over this period of time, and that gives us the opportunity to bring people together for various things.
Q: I think someone has mentioned that you can pay $300 a year and use the Georgetown Library. Is there some way as Folger researchers we wouldn’t have to pay the $300 a year?
A: Clarification: anyone can walk in and use the Georgetown Library and their online databases. If you want to be able to check out books and take them home, then you pay $300 a year to be a member of the Friends of the Library at the level at which you can check out 12 books at a time.
We’re making notes of all of this and one of the things we’ll be able to do is compile what our local resources are. If there’s any way we can facilitate use of these other resources, that’s an excellent idea.
Q: Is it possible to register as a Folger reader during this two-year period?
A: It will be possible to register as a reader during this period. What that means is that you’ll have a reader account and access to anything that we’re able to provide our researchers. For some of the offsite access to electronic resources that we’re able to provide, that would grant you the ability to use those things. Of course, it also includes access to staff and that type of assistance, as well as the ways that we communicate and provide updates. This meeting went out through the Aeon list, which means all of the readers who are registered in that system got the notification. We also sent the forum invitation out through the Folger Institute list and research bulletin. Upon registering as a reader, when we’re pushing information out through those channels, you’d be able to receive that as well.
Q: When you reopen, do you expect to have the same access to the printed materials that aren’t rare (the open stacks)?
Q: What about Saturday openings for research?
A: Exactly the same. No plans to make any kind of modifications to that.
Q: New lockers?
A: More locker access is definitely in the plans.
Q: Will readers still have access to Folger housing during the closure?
A: We’re not exactly sure how to answer that in this moment. It’s not likely but we don’t want to give a definitive answer. If you have a specific need, please let us know.
Always ask. If the answer is, we can’t accommodate that, we’ll let you know. But always ask because circumstances change. All of this is happening in real time, and we’re aware of the need to provide updates because in two months we may have an answer.