Dr Judith Spicksley
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
In January 2022 I finally managed to take up a virtual Folger Fellowship, and enjoy a month long virtual ‘visit’ to the Folger Library in Washington DC. My original plan had been to hold the fellowship in August 2021, but I contracted Covid-19 at the end of July, and had to take a month’s sick leave to recuperate. The Folger were happy to reschedule, as long as I could arrange it within the 2021-22 fellowship year. Given work commitments, and Institute events, I decided to reschedule for January 2022, when I would have the time to explore their collections.
The Folger Library Fellowships are a well-established and much sought after part of the academic ‘scene’, and are usually held onsite at the home of the Folger Library on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Library was established ‘as a gift to the American people’ in 1932 by the industrialist Henry Folger and his wife Emily, with the original design for the building being drawn by the architect Paul Philippe Cret, the French born industrial designer from Philadelphia. Numbering 82, the Library’s collection of Shakespeare’s First Folio is the world’s largest: published in 1623, the Folio included plays that up until that point had never appeared in print, including As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and The Tempest.
The Library is dedicated to the study of Shakespeare, his works, and the society he lived in. The founding collection consisted of rare books and manuscripts as well as more recent writings, art, and ephemera related to Shakespeare and the English drama of his age. It included prints, photographs, playbills, promptbooks, paintings, and reference books of many kinds.
But from the start, Henry and Emily Folger understood that neither Shakespeare nor the English drama of his age could be studied in isolation. The Library’s holdings were augmented to include numerous items bearing on Renaissance English culture and civilization as well as materials from continental Europe that influenced or reflected English thought and values. Over the years the field of acquisition has broadened further, to include materials on English culture into the first quarter of the eighteenth century.
Fellowships have been offered to support research and writing at the Library since 1935. Usually held onsite, the initiation of a major building renovation project in 2020 – to expand public space, improve accessibility, and enhance the experience for all visitors – encouraged the Library to consider offering virtual fellowships for research and writing whilst the Reading Room was closed for renovation.
Included in the Library’s collections are a number of electronic resources, some of which are freely available. This includes the Folger Shakespeare, where you can explore all Shakespeare’s plays, poems and sonnets online, read plot synopses and brief textual histories, and see selected images from the Library’s impressive collection. Usefully there is a concordance for searching across all Shakespeare’s works for specific words, names or places for example, or any other term you might be interested in. I, for example, was keen to examine all the contexts in which the terms ‘slave’ and/or ‘slavery’ appeared.
Additional electronic resources are available by subscription to registered users of the Folger. These are normally only accessible onsite at the Library, but a big part of the attraction of the virtual fellowship was the opportunity to access all these resources from my desktop here in the UK. I enjoyed four lovely weeks of largely uninterrupted research mining data related to my topic: the language of slavery in early modern England, and more especially as it appeared in the works of Shakespeare.
Folger Fellows usually get to spend a month in Washington where they can explore the Library (and the capital!) and meet and talk with other Folger Fellows. This year there are nearly forty, and the breadth of their interests is quite staggering. As things turned out, the global impact of Covid-19 would have made travel to Washington difficult at best, so on balance I got a great deal – a month away from Institute duties, access to all the Library’s digital resources, individual online support from the Folger librarian, and an introduction to a new community of scholars, coordinated by the fellowship programme assistant via Slack, the virtual communication platform.
Aside from the missed opportunities associated with a visit to one of America’s leading cultural gems, my only disappointment was not having enough time to explore the vast amount of material in the Folger collections. A month flew by in no time! However, I can recommend the experience without hesitation. I would like to thank everyone at the Folger for their help and support, and I am hugely grateful to them for giving me this opportunity. If your research is in this area, and you are interested, why don’t you think about applying for a fellowship? This year’s competition (again for virtual fellowships) closed in mid-January, but the Folger has big plans in the works for their fellowships when the Folger reopens. You can subscribe to their Research Bulletin if you would like to keep informed.