Folger Shakespeare Library

Reading Room, Folger Shakespeare Library – © David H. Enzel, 2024

Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930) and his wife, Emily Jordan Folger (1858-1936), established the Folger Shakespeare Library as a gift to the American people, after decades of assembling the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare materials. It opened in 1932, two years after the death of Henry Folger. The Folger’s collection features the 82 First Folios of Shakespeare, the 1623 publication that is one of the most sought-after and important books in the history of publishing.

Henry Folger was a first cousin six times removed of Benjamin Franklin and a nephew of J. A. Folger, the founder of Folger Coffee.

After opening, the Folger steadily expanded its holdings to become a world-class research center on the early modern period, while remaining the premier center for Shakespeare studies and resources outside of England. The Folger has the world’s largest collection of the printed works of William Shakespeare, and is a primary repository for rare materials from the early modern period (1500–1750) in Britain and Europe.

The Folger’s public outreach programs, beginning in the library’s early decades with exhibitions, lectures, and publications, have also grown over time.

Emily Folger wrote of Henry Folger’s belief that Shakespeare “is one of our best sources, one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought, our faith and our hope.” This belief in the deep connection between Shakespeare and America is the reason the Folger Shakespeare Library is located in the nation’s capital.

The Folgers worked closely with the French-born architect Paul Philippe Cret (1876-1945) to create a marble building which reads like a book, and whose placement testified to the hope that Washington, DC, would become the nation’s civic and cultural capital.

The Folger collection began in 1889 with Henry Folger’s first purchase of a rare book, a copy of the 1685 Fourth Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. By the time the collection was transported to the new library, it amounted to 200,000 items.

In 1938, the library acquired the collection of the late Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth, comprising more than 8,000 rare books printed in England between 1475 and 1640. Together with later acquisitions, the Harmsworth purchase expanded the Folger’s focus beyond Shakespeare studies to include virtually all aspects of the early modern period in Europe.

From 1948 to 1968, Folger Director Louis B. Wright added substantial materials from the Renaissance in Europe, acquiring 22,000 continental books and 19,000 more English books.

The Folger continues to make new acquisitions of rare material.

In 1930, the library was placed in trust of Amherst College, Henry Folger’s alma mater. The library building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Reading Room, Folger Shakespeare Library showing its beautiful stained glass windows. – © David H. Enzel, 2024

The beautiful Reading Room officially opened in January 1933 and today contains reference works for easy accessibility to readers. Henry Folger wanted the Library’s reading room to feel at once like a private home and the Great Hall of an English college. It features stained-glass windows and a large stone fireplace which has never been used. The large stained-glass window overlooking what is now the Gail Kern Paster Reading Room was designed and created by Nicola D’Ascenzo (1871-1954), an Italian-born American stained glass designer, painter and instructor. The Reading Room also features 16th- and 17th-century French and Flemish tapestries, carved oak paneling and a high trussed roof.

On a hall screen at the east end hang portraits of the Folgers in their academic robes, painted by the British artist Frank O. Salisbury (1874-1962). Above the Salisbury portraits is a bust of Shakespeare based on his memorial in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. The ashes of both Folgers are immured behind a memorial plaque.

At the west end of the Reading Room is one of the Folger’s treasures, a large stained-glass window depicting the Seven Ages of Man from Jaques’s speech in As You Like It. Although the window is exposed to exterior sunlight, it is in an interior space and is not visible from outside the building.

The intimate Elizabethan Theatre is the setting for Folger Theatre productions. With its three-tiered wooden balconies, carved oak columns, and half-timbered facade, the Theatre evokes the courtyard of an English Renaissance inn. The theater seats around 260. It has no pit. The first theatrical performance in the Elizabethan Theatre was a 1949 production of Julius Caesar.

A major four year expansion and renovation led by Kieran Timberlake was completed in 2024.

Reading Room, Folger Shakespeare Library showing the portraits of the Folgers by Frank O. Salisbury. – © David H. Enzel, 2024

The Folger Shakespeare Library (201 E. Capitol St. SE) is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with extended hours to 9 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Free timed entry passes are recommended.


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