Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.

In the heart of Washington, D.C., you can find the largest collection of Shakespeare’s printed works in the world. The Folger Shakespeare Library is an independent institute, whose aim is to research, conserve, and promote the works of the author who many people consider the world’s greatest playwright. Opened in 1932, adjacent to the Library of Congress, the Folger Library contains 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio – a compendium of all of his known works, first published in 1623 – and numerous quartos of individual Shakespeare plays.

The library’s collection is not limited to Shakespearean works alone. The third-largest collection of English books in the world printed before 1641, the Folger houses manuscripts penned by Elizabeth I and John Donne (as well as relatively modern writers such as Mark Twain and Walt Whitman); approximately 55,000 original manuscripts in all. 250,000 books and playbills each are in its catalogue, along with 50,000 prints and photographs, and additional paintings, sculptures, and other art, mainly relating to Shakespeare’s plays or the author himself; or dating from the ‘early modern’ period of 1500-1750, during which Shakespeare lived and wrote.

The library building itself is something to see, and not soon forgotten. Bas-relief scenes carved in white marble show scenes from Shakespearean plays even before you enter, quotes are inscribed on the library’s exterior, and a statue of Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream playfully greets visitors. An Elizabethan garden on the grounds cultivates plants either mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays or popular in England at the time he wrote them. Inside, oak panels and Tudor-style architecture create a warm atmosphere, and the Folger Library Elizabethan Theatre welcomes spectators with grand columns and long balconies.

If you didn’t come to read, you might have come to listen; the Folger Elizabethan Theatre produces the Bard’s works onstage as (true lovers of Shakespeare will tell you) they are meant to be appreciated. If you check the calendar of events before you visit, you might also catch a poetry recital, scholarly presentation, exhibition tour, or other program. While you probably won’t be able to steal a look into the Conservation Lab where work is done to preserve old or damaged books, you might be able to view rare and restored materials in one of the exhibitions on display. Students of theatre and literature might even already be familiar with the Folger Editions of Shakespeare published by the institute, or with Hamnet, the online library catalog and resource database for scholars.

Even if you’ve been there before, the rotating exhibitions and programs make the Folger Library well worth multiple visits. Like so much in D.C., admission to the library is free, as are many of its exhibits and programs. It’s close to the Capitol – but not so close that you can’t find a restaurant nearby – and easily Metro-accessible. If you’re there to catch a matinee performance, you can even head to the nearby Shakespeare Theatre for a second dose of the Bard of Avon after dinner.

Photos: Folger Theatre, University of Texas, Fine Books Magazine, Wikipedia, Fine Books Magazine

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