Form & Function: The Genius of the Book

Press Contact

Garland Scott
(202) 675–0342

Curator-Led Tours
Available upon request

On Exhibit

June 16–September 23, 2018

Washington, DC—Dive deep into one of the world's greatest technologies—the book—through a fascinating, in-depth display that reveals the structure, craftsmanship, and beauty of this often-overlooked marvel.
Form & Function: The Genius of the Book, curated by the Folger’s Head of Conservation Renate Mesmer, includes more than 110 rare books from the Folger collection, including printed books and bound manuscripts. Offering an entirely different perspective, Mesmer chose the volumes not for their contents, but to show the key parts of a book and the many ways that they can be combined.
"Folger conservators are fortunate to have the opportunity to closely study and examine many books in our collection," she explains. "In doing so, conservators train their eyes by repeatedly seeing features and structures of the books." The volumes in this exhibition give visitors a chance to do the same, exploring the steps that bookbinders followed centuries ago, from techniques for folding pages, to sewing patterns, to the wide range of board and covering materials.”
Visitors can also touch and feel materials such as leather, fabric, and parchment, see an early bookbinder's tools or a conservator's modern equipment, and watch videos on papermaking, printing, sewing, and bookbinding. Magnified views explore small details, including the fine touches of an embroidered 17th-century binding. Scientific research, including the use of DNA analysis and advanced imaging, adds still more to the rare book story. 
Understanding the art and craftsmanship of such volumes helps us explore how books were made and used, makes it possible to conserve them, and gives us the knowledge to appreciate them. In this exhibition, the books speak for themselves—not through the information stored inside them, but as unique, hand-crafted objects in their own right. 

Exhibition Highlights and Discoveries

  • Books with boards that are detached reveal normally hidden elements, from sewing supports to medieval manuscripts re-used as spine linings 
  • A bound manuscript by an early 18th-century Quaker student is a work in progress, undergoing stabilization and repair in a project funded by Folger donors
  • Findings from the DNA analysis of wood, parchment, bookworm waste, and dust may tell us more about economics and other aspects of book production and ownership
  • A Shakespeare First Folio is accompanied by a copy of detailed notes from bookbinder Roger Payne, who rebound the volume in the late 1700s
  • An infrared image shows an inscription concealed by a pastedown in a 17th-century book—and an ultraviolet image lets us read very faded writing in another
  • A fascinating selection of bindings ranges from cheap, plain, and serviceable to those fit for a king or queen, including tooled goatskin and embroidery on religious themes


Renate Mesmer is the J. Franklin Mowery Head of Conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She is a book and paper conservator with more than 20 years of experience in the field. She formally trained as a master bookbinder in Germany and has pursued further conservation training at renowned institutions throughout Europe and the United States. She has held previous positions conserving and restoring books and manuscripts at the University Library in Mannheim, Germany; the Speyer State Archives in Germany; and the centro del bel libro in Ascona, Switzerland.


Folger website and social media

The exhibition is featured on the Folger's website at, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at the hashtag #GeniusoftheBook.


Folger Shakespeare Library is located at 201 East Capitol Street, Washington, DC 20003, one block east of the US Capitol. 

Hours and Admission

Monday through Saturday, 10am–5pm

Sunday, noon–5pm

Admission is free.


Monday–Saturday at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm; Sunday at 12pm and 3pm

Folger docents offer guided tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger’s national landmark building, free of charge. No advance reservations required.

Group Tours

Docent-led tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger's national landmark building, are offered for groups of 10 or more. To arrange, please call (202) 675–0395.


Folger Shakespeare Library is the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the ultimate resource for exploring Shakespeare and his world. The Folger welcomes millions of visitors online and in person. We provide unparalleled access to a huge array of resources, from original sources to modern interpretations. With the Folger, you can experience the power of performance, the wonder of exhibitions, and the excitement of pathbreaking research. We offer the opportunity to see and even work with early modern sources, driving discovery and transforming education for students of all ages. Join us online, on the road, or in Washington, DC. 


Press Contact

Garland Scott
(202) 675–0342

Curator-Led Tours
Available upon request