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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

A Tour of the Newly-Reopened Folger | Part 2

Research at the Folger

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 239

After a four-year renovation, the Folger Shakespeare Library is now open with 12,000 square feet of new public spaces. But behind the scenes, in our original building, we’ve also revamped the way we serve researchers working with the world’s largest Shakespeare collection.

On this episode, host Barbara Bogaev talks with Director of Collections Greg Prickman, Folger Institute Director Patricia Akhimie, and Folger Director Michael Witmore about how research happens at the Folger, from Folger Institute fellowships to the chairs in our Reading Room.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, YouTube Music, Spotify, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published July 2, 2024. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc.

Previous: A Tour of the Newly-Reopened Folger | Part 1



MICHAEL WITMORE: On today’s episode, a look behind the scenes as the Folger Shakespeare Library reopens to researchers.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger Director. On our last episode, the Folger staff and I gave a tour of the new wing of the Folger, including the brand-new exhibition halls and gardens.

Today, we’re going to learn more about another part of the Folger’s mission: serving researchers who come to visit the world’s largest Shakespeare collection. As we’ll hear, the Folger’s research staff had to adapt during the four years we were closed for construction. Many of those adaptations for remote access have informed new ways for researchers to work at the Folger.

As we welcome our first group of in person researchers back into the reading room, we’re hoping those changes will make the Folgers collection more accessible than ever.

The first stop on this backstage tour is the reading room itself, the centerpiece of Henry and Emily Folger’s original vision.

Greg Prickman, the Folgers Director of Collections and Exhibitions, showed Barbara Bogaev what’s new underneath all that beautiful stained glass and wood paneling.


GREG PRICKMAN: Okay, and here we are.


PRICKMAN: In the reading room of the Folger Shakespeare Library with its vaulted ceiling, wood bookcases on either side, two levels with the balcony wrapping around and a staircase. We’re standing right now between two globes that frame the entrance into the room.

BOGAEV: Oh, and huge pedestals.

PRICKMAN: Huge pedestals. Then, as we gaze up. Behind us now, turning around, is the stained-glass window which depicts the seven ages of man from the speech in As You Like It.

BOGAEV: It’s stunning, especially the vaulted ceiling. And there’s a fireplace that I’m sure you can’t use ever.

PRICKMAN: Absolutely not.

BOGAEV: Has it ever been used in the history?

PRICKMAN: I don’t believe so. I don’t believe so.

BOGAEV: Good. Could you describe for us the other end of the room?

PRICKMAN: Sure. So, throughout the expanse of the room, we have the tables that scholars and readers and researchers come to sit at to do their work in the collection.

BOGAEV: These are your new tables, because I remember very dark wood. Very dark reading room, actually.

PRICKMAN: Yes. Yes, it was very dark.

BOGAEV: I wondered how people could read.

PRICKMAN: Yes, it was challenging. One of the things that we now have in place are these new tables. We’ve designed these tables based on years of observation of work and the things that people need when they’re here.

Again, I think for us, in particular, knowing that we often have people spending a long time in the space using materials, there are certain things that we really tried to accommodate for.

BOGAEV: Such as?

PRICKMAN: Such as, you can see the line down the center of the table.

BOGAEV: Very subtle, but yes, there’s a line.

PRICKMAN: It’s subtle, but that means there’s going to be a chair here.

And this—what I’m pointing to—is the expanse from one side of the table to the center of the table where the line is. That is—that marks the working space for somebody sitting.

BOAGEV: That’s my real estate.

PRICKMAN: This is—again, from the observations that we’ve done from working with colleagues in other institutions—this is a generous amount of working space. I think that it’s situated in such a way that it can be pretty efficient for the kind of work that people come here to do.

You’ll notice the edge of—the front edge of the table here has a rounded edge.

BOGAEV: Oh, that’s nice.

PRICKMAN: That’s because of how your arm rests when you’re, again, spending hours at this table with your arm, you know, resting on the edge of the table. Just that little detail makes it very comfortable to be spending that much time here.

Then, we have lights that are embedded on each of the tables. And they cast an enormous amount of light compared to what we used to have in here, which can really be directed on the materials that researchers are using.

I have to point out, underneath the lip of the table here in front we have the outlets for charging devices. We had researchers—

BOGAEV: You’ve moved into the 21st century.

PRICKMAN: Let’s call it the 21st. Yeah. We used to routinely have people on the floor trying to plug their laptops in and it wasn’t great. And that’s a problem we’ve solved.

BOGAEV: It is an interesting mix of modern and historic, this room.

PRICKMAN: This room, yes.

BOGAEV: With these new tables. The light oak and the modern lighting. How about—we’ve talked a lot about the tables, so how about the chairs? Those are long hours.

PRICKMAN: They are long hours. We know that the average amount of time that a reader spends is over five hours sitting in one of these chairs. So we are planning to have task chairs in place in the reading room.

BOGAEV: Ergonomic.


BOGAEV: To support your back.

PRICKMAN: To be much more supportive for long hours of work. This is a historic room. It has a certain historic feeling to it. And task chairs are perhaps somewhat incongruous in such a setting. However…

BOGAEV: I’m sure there’s some purists.

PRICKMAN: There may be some purists. But, you know, the way I see it… and I think what’s in front of us right now is an example of that.

We’re standing within this historic space with the dark wood on the walls and the shelves and the balcony. But where we’re standing, in the center of this space are these new tables and new lights.

To me, this is a modern workplace. People come here to do work. And, even if it’s because it’s their hobby and they enjoy it, they’re still coming here to do something. This is a workplace. So, to be able to provide for people’s comfort in their ability to do their work, I think, is a fitting use of this space, even if it’s sort of a room within a room, in that sense.

BOGAEV: Tell me about some of the considerations you made into redesigning this space, because people use this room in a really specific way. You know, we think of just reading, but it’s not just scholarly research. And you have a specific way of doing it and calling these books up out of the vault.

PRICKMAN: That’s exactly right. This is a specific kind of work, so it’s really important to us that this process works very well so that as people come and they’re seated at these new tables. They will call materials up from the vaults—the vaults are below us—and we deliver that material to the table.

We have a kind of researcher here at the Folger who will spend hours, days, months, years, working through material in a very methodical and meditative way.

It’s what Henry Folger and Emily Folger set this library up to do, to be able to get the material they collected in front of people to use it in that way. And, we do other things now too, but that remains a core element of the Folger.

BOGAEV: So, I’m a scholar and I am really lucky and I get to spend a few months here. I assume I research, first, all the books I want, online, but a lot of it is not digitized, right?

PRICKMAN: That’s correct.

BOGAEV: So, I arrive here and there’s some books I want. Have I sent you an email or told you the ones I want? How do you organize this whole production?

PRICKMAN: Oftentimes we will be engaged with people in advance of a visit and we’ll have some sense of what they’re looking for and what they’re doing.

But what we frequently see is people coming in really prepared. “I’m going to look at these things. I’m researching this question. I’m going to try to find these things.”

They’re here for a week or two, and they’re off on something else because they encounter other things in the collection while they’re here and it sparks them to go off in other directions.

We really find all manner of really exciting work that happens here.

BOGAEV: So, we’re in a new age. Everybody’s used to working online pretty much, I imagine, all your scholars. They’re here with their laptops. Are they taking photos of things that they’re going to look at later?


BOGAEV: Is that the main activity?

PRICKMAN: That increasingly is one of the main activities. Now, we’re going to have to see when we reopen.

When we closed, the months before we closed—the waning months of 2019, which feels like a lifetime ago—we noticed that when people were here, they were calling up many items. And they spent their time taking photographs because they knew that their access was going to be taken away when we closed.

BOGAEV: They were desperate?

PRICKMAN: They were desperate for access. It all comes back to access to the material. They can spend the time doing the work, the thinking, the connecting in other venues, but you have to have access to the material, and that’s what we provide. It will be very interesting to see, when we reopen, what the tempo of that looks like today.

We will likely have people with us who will continue to do a very traditional type of in-person intensive research using rare materials. I think we will also have some people who are coming to take photos.

One of the things that we are also working on, in terms of how access to the collection is evolving, is trying to establish a more efficient, cost-effective, and quicker way to get photographs to people of pages of our books. Because we can do some of that work here. People don’t necessarily have to burn jet fuel to come and take photographs of something that’s right here. So, we’re working on some systems where we can get a request, go snap some photos. It’s nothing fancy. You know, it’s not our high-tech digitization; It’s just a photo on a phone, just like they would take, and then it gets sent back to them. We’re going to really be working hard on making that process as efficient as possible.

You know, there’re other things have changed in the research environment. Funding has decreased in humanities departments for travel. We can’t necessarily assume that the people who need this collection are going to be able to get here and are going to be able to spend the time to do that work. We’re not going to let that stop us from making sure that they have access to.

BOGAEV: Who uses the room besides scholars and academics, the obvious choices?

PRICKMAN: Right, sure. Lots of scholars and academics. But we have people from all walks of life who come to use this collection.

I think my colleague Patricia Akhimie, who’s the director of the Folger Institute, spends a lot of time thinking about that. So, maybe we could go and see her, and she’d have some things to share.

BOGAEV: Oh, thanks, great.

Hello, Patricia! It’s so nice to meet you in the flesh.

PATRICIA AKHIMIE: Oh, welcome to the Folger! It’s so great to have you here. Hi again, Barbara.

BOGAEV: Thank you so much. You have a beautiful office, by the way. Thank you for the candy.

BOGAEV: We’re here to talk about research. I think I’m just going to start with a really basic question. Who comes to the Folger to research?

AKHIMIE: We have researchers of all kinds. “Researchers” is a word that we use to describe all kinds of folks who come to use the materials here at the Folger and our spaces for study.

There are artists who come to the Folger, who do their work or take inspiration for their work from the materials here. We have scholars who are in all kinds of different disciplines. Lots of literary critics and Shakespeareans, of course, but also historians, art historians, philosophers, classicists. And, folks who work on a lot of different time periods: 18th century, certainly the Renaissance, medievalists. They all come here to find the primary source materials. So very, very old books, articles, manuscripts. They also come here to use our modern collections of articles, monographs, books about the type of research that they do.

You’re reminding me also that when we say artists as researchers, that includes artists of all kinds: visual artists, theater practitioners, people who write or make music. Because the collection encompasses all kinds of materials, including early music, images, and illustrations. Some of which are not replicated elsewhere in the world, and you can only see them here. That’s a big draw.

BOGAEV: Who have you been really interested in or what project have you been really surprised by recently?

AKHIMIE: If you were a Shakespearean anywhere in the world, you have heard of the Folger and you know about our collection. But our collection is much more vast than just Shakespeare.

One thing that surprised me: So, the Institute awards fellowships for researchers to come and study and use the materials here. This year, the number of applications exploded. We received almost twice or more as many applications as we usually would receive in a year.

BOGAEV: Because people are dying to get back in the building.

AKHIMIE: They just want to be here. One thing that did surprise me was that amongst that, you know, sudden burst of additional applications, there were lots of scholars who are not Shakespeareans. Who work in other languages, on other cultures. And scholars who are interested in later time periods than the one in which Shakespeare lived.

Some of our fellows who will be joining us in the coming year work on abolition, the 18th century, sugar, slavery. These are projects that the Folger doesn’t see as often. It’s very exciting to welcome folks who haven’t maybe thought of the Folger as a place where they could do their research and see what they find in the collection that possibly no one has picked up and used in decades.

BOGAEV: Okay, so how did you apply all this acquired knowledge from the pandemic to the redesign?

AKHIMIE: Wow. I’ll tell you about two things. Behind the scenes here at the Folger Institute, where we have fabulous fellowships to give out to researchers, one of the things we realized was that we needed to make our fellowships flexible.

We started saying to researchers, “You tell us how much time do you need to spend here at the Folger and how much of your fellowship would you like to take virtually.”

We were astonished to hear from researchers that they were very clear about what they needed. It was not all virtual and it wasn’t all in-person. Most often it was a combination and they knew, “I need three weeks in person and then I need three months virtually.”

Or, “I need eight months, in person, no breaks. And then, I’ll see you later and I’ll take the last month from home.” We are overjoyed that we’re able to meet the needs of researchers now.

BOGAEV: You were a researcher here numerous times, weren’t you?


BOGAEV: What are some of your favorite memories?

AKHIMIE: Well, I do remember… I was one of those researchers who came back many, many times to the Folger. I came as a graduate student. I came as a junior faculty member, and as a more advanced scholar. I have been back to the Folger again and again.

Some of my favorite memories of the Folger: When you enroll in a Folger Institute scholarly program—these are seminars. Sometimes, they’re symposia, weekend workshops. But, in any case, they are conducted here at the Folger, usually, and facilitated by world class scholars.

As a graduate student, I was lucky enough to be enrolled in one of these seminars by a scholar who is a personal hero, Kim Hall, a Folger friend way back.

When you’re in one of these seminars—it used to be that the seminars took place in these rooms that were on what we call Decks A and B and C. Which meant that to reach them you had to go deeper and deeper into the Folger.

BOGAEV: The vault?

AKIHIMIE: Yes, closer and closer to the vault, itself. And no windows, as you go deeper and deeper.

BOGAEV: And it gets colder and colder.

AKIHIMIE: That is absolutely true. And you can only bring your pencil, of course.

But there was something very special about that feeling that not only were you lucky enough to get to be admitted to this seminar, and then admitted to the Folger itself—which was a kind of… it felt like a kind of jewel box with, like, it was one tiny entryway, and you had to go through security to get into the library and then down flights of stairs to get to the seminar rooms.

Then, once there, you would have these amazing facilitated conversations about the cutting edge of what was happening in your area of research. That was a wonderful feeling.

But there’s something that… there will be something very different about that experience for researchers who come now. I think different, actually, in a good way.

When researchers come to the Folger when we reopen, that jewel box with the tiny door that only a few people can go inside of will have been replaced by a wide-open entrance that everyone is welcome to come through.

When researchers walk through our doors, they’ll walk through along with members of the general public who are here to do all kinds of stuff, including research of their own, not just in our collection, but in our galleries—and to have a cup of coffee at our café.

Being a researcher in this building, rather than a sort of—there was a slightly, like, monastic feel to how it was before. This new experience, I think, will be really refreshing, engaging. It will be an opportunity for researchers to interact with a wider public, which is something we don’t often get a chance to do. To say to someone who is just passing through or having a cup of coffee, “I’m working on this,” is just not something that’s happened at the Folger before.

BOGAEV: Patricia, thank you so much for this. This is really great to hang out in your office. I could stay here all day. It’s so comfortable. But, it turns out I have to go talk to Mike Whitmore.

AKHIMIE: Well, that’s a good person to talk to.

BOGAEV: Always.

WITMORE: So, welcome to my office.


WITMORE: I’ve had the opportunity as director to work in this office for 13 years. They have been completely rewarding. They’ve been very challenging at times, but I’m able to look at the garden from here. I’m able to see the Capitol.

I’m also just able to see the mission, which is to bring together the arts and humanities for another generation to create a more diverse audience for Shakespeare, and to make it all add up to more passionate and engaged citizenship so that we can live together in a democracy. I think that’s a pretty clear mandate and I think we’ve had it from the start, but now we’re able to live it.

BOGAEV: You feel that in this office?

WITMORE: It’s a great, inspiring place to work. The thing that I wanted to show you here is the desk. This is called a “partner desk.” This is the desk where Henry and Emily Folger worked together to create the collection.

Cool. A partner desk because it has two sides—drawers on both sides.

WITMORE: Mirroring drawers. You can see that they must have sat about three feet away from each other. I love the idea that this collection was born out of a partnership and a collaboration, and that no one person could have the complete idea.

BOGAEV: What are your thoughts looking ahead? You have a new director coming in, Farrah Karim-Cooper. What are you excited about for her, for her tenure?

WITMORE: Well, my hope was to, after this project was done, step aside, but make way for another director with a different kind of drive and energy, a different kind of creativity who could take this place even further. That’s a really important thing to know when your creativity and vision has reached the point where it’s been expressed, you know?

I felt like the work that I did with these incredible artists and with the staff and the board to build this vision and to actually turn it into something that you could walk around in, that all took shape over the last nine or ten years. But it was essentially done about two years ago, three years ago. It was done, all but for the making.

A new director—and Farah Karim-Cooper is going to be fantastic. She’s coming to us from Shakespeare’s Globe. She is part of an institution that’s a historic place for Shakespeare. She understands Shakespearean performance. She understands theaters and research libraries.

My hope for the Folger is that the chessboard is laid out in such a way that many new moves are possible. I can see the Folger becoming a beloved destination and place for people to come and gather. But, I also think that there’re tremendous opportunities in further research, commissioning artistic work, bringing in artistic fellows, which is something that’s going to happen.

The teaching of the humanities in the high school classroom is ready for more. We’ve been teaching teachers for decades. Farah Karim-Cooper was Head of Education and Research at the Globe and really understands that. I think that really the… there is plenty of room and there’s plenty of gas in the tank.

BOGAEV: As you leave, are you a future scholar here? Is that what you’re thinking?

WITMORE: Well, I have a reading card, a Reading Room card, so I could join others. And maybe I will.

Barbara, I really don’t know. I’ve been talking about Shakespeare for 13 years. I’m not sure I have anything specific to say yet, but I do have… something really struck me as I was thinking about leaving and what I’ve learned and it’s this: I think Shakespeare—I do think he was a genius. I think he had three superpowers, and he had them all at once. The first is he had complete mastery of his craft. As a lyric poet, as a theatrical writer, he really understood how to put together a line, a sonnet, or a play.

The second thing was he had a deep respect for the tradition and he knew it. When he wrote, he knew what Ovid was saying. He knew what Boccaccio was saying. He knew what Chaucer had done. That gives him a whole set of registers in which to work.

The third thing he had was that he was alive and aware of the contemporary world around him. He felt the winds of politics blow through London, blow through his life. That is what let him be this person who could be at the right place at the right time to be able to react, to be able to produce. It’s the whole package.

As I was thinking about my time here—you know, what makes the Folger great? Well, it has those same three ingredients. There are people here who can spot a sans serif font from a hundred yards, you know. There are people who really, really understand the history of rare books and manuscript production and reception. There are people here who deeply understand the traditions.

Then, finally, the programming that we do, the exhibitions that we do, the scholarship we support, responds to the world. It’s the world as it comes to us. It’s not the world as we imagine it.

It became more and more important to me over time to recognize that we’re part of DC. We’re not in London. It looks like we’re in the UK, but it was an intentional act to put this place on Capitol Hill at the crossroads of democracy, in a city with its own culture.

If you think about that longer, you realize that there are histories just right under our feet or around us that are relevant to this collection. You know, an example, I think, of the history of oratory. In this city, Frederick Douglass lived two blocks away from the Folger. He delivered some of the greatest sentences ever uttered in English and was the most photographed person in the 19th century. Well, that tradition has something to do with Shakespeare and with the traditions of political oratory that we explore here.

If you think about London in 1580, 1590, when Shakespeare was working, that was a really interesting, and kind of divided, city. You had the court, you had all the pageants. But then you had the city of London, which was producing a new art form. It was called professional theater.

I think of that in the context of Washington, DC, which has its own culture. An incredible form of music, go-go, was created here. Punk rock was amazing here in the 1980s.

BOGAEV: I’ve got to say here that people probably don’t know you’re a musician.

WITMORE: I’m a musician. I’ve been a drummer all my life. In fact, when I moved here in 1989, I moved here to be in a band.

BOGAEV: Really?

WITMORE: Then I got a job at night being a telemarketer for Folger Theatre. I used to call people for money and ask them to support the Folger.

BOGAEV: You went from being a telemarketer here to being the director?

WITMORE: It took a while, but yes. You know, I just realized you have to pay attention to the culture that’s around you. I also think about the history of Capitol Hill. We know that there were indigenous people farming here on Capitol Hill. There were peas and squash here. There’s great evidence of what they did just a couple of blocks to the south. In 1623, when the First Folio was printed, there was an Englishman who came up the Potomac and was captured by the Nacotchtank tribe and lived with them for five years, learned their language.

That’s a part of the history that is documented here too: the settler colonialism that came to this part of North America. I just… I like that lesson that that you may dream of being somewhere else and think that that’s the better place to make an argument or learn something… But just look around you. This is a great institution that serves Washington and serves visitors to Washington, and that’s a strength.

BOGAEV: I want to ask you, before you leave: It’s such a challenging time for cultural institutions. I could—it’s an endless list. I mean, coming out of the pandemic, that was challenging enough. Civil unrest, cultural divisiveness, political divisions. The whole hornet’s nest that we’re all confronting now. But I think, particularly, cultural institutions are undergoing a change. What are your thoughts on that as you, as you move on to your next step?

WITMORE: Well, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the challenges and opportunities presented by the last five years.

The emphasis on racial justice was a very important moment for theaters, for academia. My sense is that if the humanities cannot help us—if theater, poetry, music, and the humanities can’t help us understand how to live together in a multiracial democracy, what are they good for?

What follows from that is the need to both accommodate and provoke dialogue. And to… I hope we have been able to actually walk straight into painful conversations, but also very important and interesting conversations.

BOGAEV: I’m thinking I’ve talked to so many of your colleagues about the renovations but I haven’t really talked to you about how you feel about it, and how the whole journey has felt for you.

WITMORE: It has been a journey. It started with a strategic plan that said remain a great research library, but encircle it with an accessible public institution. Then, a master plan and then a project plan, and then permitting, and then a capital campaign. It was a step-by-step process and it was a hugely demanding.

The thing that I love most about the time that I spent working with my team and with our supporters is when people said “yes.” Like writing to Rita Dove and saying, “Could you write a welcome poem for the Folger?” And the answer was, “Yes.”

You know, a lot of life is what you choose to say yes to. I hope this becomes a place where people come and say yes to new things.

BOGAEV: Great. I’ll meet you there.

WITMORE: Sounds fabulous. Thanks, Barbara.

BOGAEV: Thank you so much. We’ll miss you.

WITMORE: I’ll miss you too.
WITMORE: The Folger is now open to the public after its construction break, and we couldn’t be more excited to welcome you back.

Come check out our brand-new gardens, cafe, and exhibition halls, or take in a performance in our Elizabethan Theater. You can find more information and plan your visit at our website,

This episode was produced by Matt Frassica. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. Final mixing services provided by Clean Cuts at Three Seas, Inc

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a review on your podcast platform of choice, to help others find the show.

For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Whitmore. This will be my last episode with you, but the show will go on. Thank you so much for listening.