It has finally sunk in. I am a reader at the Folger Shakespeare Library.
When I got here, I really had no clue what that meant, which is a bit embarrassing given that others work so hard to get here and recognize the honor immediately when they do. When I applied I was focused mostly on the workshops we would be doing about using performance techniques to improve students’ experience reading Shakespeare by engaging them more physically with close reading and intensifying their exposure to the text. I thought more about the curriculum of the Institute than where it would be held.
Then on Tuesday we received an introduction to the collection and a tour of the reading room and holdings. Georgianna Ziegler, Head of Reference, brought out a cart of 16th-and 17th-century books, including a first Folio and a hand-written manuscript (in the late 1500s that would be redundant) on demonologie by James VI of Scotland (later James I of England). At which point my perspective shifted from “I’m doing a set of intense workshops” to “I’m studying in a museum.”
And yes, we were allowed to touch the books. If you ever want to see people in their twenties and thirties act like excited elementary students, tell a Shakespeare teacher he or she can touch a first Folio. Instantly, the Folger went from mere museum to rare literature petting zoo.
Last year, when I attended Phillips Exeter Academy’s Shakespeare Conference, we were allowed to look at both a second Folio and a Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, the revised second edition I think. (Note to SPA librarian Nick Bancks – can our library have a Holinshed?) We were asked to wear white gloves in order to keep dirt and oils from our hands from getting on the books. At the Folger, I noticed, no one wears gloves. Ziegler explained that they believe wearing gloves may lead you to do greater damage to the books because you lack the fine touch and sensitivity if your hands are covered. It’s easier, for example, to tear a page if gloves cause you to handle it more roughly than you would otherwise. As for grimy fingers, she added, we expect you to wash your hands before coming to the reading room.
That’s just one of the rules. There are a lot of rules that come with the reading room: exit cards, clear plastic bags for your belongings, no umbrellas, appropriate writing utensils. I spent much of the afternoon deciding what rare books I wanted for my research paper on contemporary attitudes about witchcraft and the supernatural in Macbeth. I decided on Lambert Daneau’s Dialogue of Witches (1575), Reginald Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), George Gifford’s A Discourse of the Subtill Practices of Devilles (1587), and William Perkins’ Discourse of the Damned Art of Witchcraft (1610). To get these books, you fill out special request cards and extremely kind librarians descend to the vault and retrieve your books. It’s a little like getting money out of Gringotts, only without the goblins.
So I took my request cards to the librarian who looked at me in horror and said, in a voice almost not a whisper, “you can’t have a pen in here!” He made me fill the cards out again. In pencil.
Ah well, we learn from our mistakes right?
photo credit: Old Reading Room, photo by Julie Ainsworth