National Geographic : 1951 Sep
Folger: Biggest Little Library in the World BY JOSEPH T. FOSTER Illustrations by National Geographic Photographers B. Anthony Stewart and John E. Fletcher THE WORLD'S largest and finest col lection of Shakespeareana doesn't lie in Stratford on Avon, in London, or even in Great Britain. It is housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D. C. The library has become an outstanding re search institution, where almost any signifi cant topic in the history of English civilization in the 16th and 17th centuries can be studied. It is known far and wide as a dynamic center of learning in the English-speaking world. Last year scholars from 34 States and nine foreign countries used its resources. And more than 60,000 sight-seeing visitors passed through its exhibition hall to see rare docu ments, musical instruments, paintings, cos tumes, and mementos on display. Because of the imagination and foresight of the trustees of Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts, who have administered it since its beginning, the library has prospered and grown. More than a Shrine to Shakespeare Though it is called Folger Shakespeare Library, it is not, as most persons think, de voted only to the Bard, nor is it only a monument to a great poet. The Folger includes the Western Hemi sphere's greatest historical collections for the study of English civilization before 1641. In fact, it claims more than 53 percent of the titles of all existing books printed in Eng land or in English before that time. The library hopes in time to procure, in some form, every significant English book published from the invention of printing to the end of the 17th century. The library tries first to get early editions. If originals are not available, it obtains a book in microfilm or photostat. The 17th century is particularly important for Americans because colonial America was directly descended from the culture of Eng land in the 16th and 17th centuries.* The library also possesses a surprising amount of early Americana, including rare volumes describing voyages and explorations in the New World, and such books as Capt. John Smith's Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles. Because of this wealth of collateral Renais sance material, scholars do not have to study Shakespeare in a vacuum. It is no wonder scholars look to the Folger as "the best and finest Shakespeare collection" and refer to it as "the biggest little library in the world." The history of the Folger and the man who founded it reads like a success story in the best American tradition. In 1879 Henry Clay Folger, a poor senior at Amherst College, bought a 25-cent lecture ticket to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson. The New England philos opher inspired the student with his beautiful English and fine intellect.f "Orbit and Sum of Shakespeare's Wit" Later the young man stumbled on an ex cerpt from a speech Emerson made in Boston in 1864, the tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth. It read: England's genius filled all measure Of heart and soul, of strength and pleasure, Gave to the mind its Emperor, And life was larger than before: Nor sequent centuries could hit Orbit and sum of Shakespeare's wit. The men who lived with him became Poets, for the air was fame. The eulogy so fired Folger's imagination that he began a thorough study of the poet's works. He left Amherst with a great love for Shakespeare. After graduation, he took a clerk's job with a New York oil-refining company and studied law in his spare time. He was admitted to the bar in 1881, but chose to stay with the rapidly expanding petroleum industry. It was a wise choice. He rose to be president and later chairman of the board of the Standard Oil Company of New York. Folger never lost his interest in Shakespeare. Shortly after his marriage to Emily Jordan in 1885, he purchased for $1.25 a reduced fac simile of the First Folio. "Here you may see Shakespeare's plays as they were actually presented to the world," he told his wife. Mrs. Folger named that volume "the cornerstone of the Shakespeare Library." He bought his first rare book, a copy of the Fourth Folio, at auction in 1889. He got it for $107.50 and had to arrange for credit to pay for it. Later Henry Folger became a millionaire. *See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "The British Way," April, 1949, and "Founders of Virginia," April, 1948, both by Sir Evelyn Wrench. t See "Literary Landmarks of Massachusetts," by William H. Nicholas, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, March, 1950.