The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Q & A: Carol Brobeck, Fellowships Administrator

title page of The Mariners Mirrour

Anyone who has been a Fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library can attest to the central role that Carol Brobeck plays as the Fellowships Administrator in making their work possible. She has also worked with scholars and staff on four exhibitions, most recently “Impressions of Wenceslaus Hollar” in 1996 and “Lost at Sea” in 2010. Here Carol gives a sense of her history at the Library, an account of the Fellowships program, and offers some advice for applicants. 

How did you come to work at the Folger?

I’ve been at the Folger almost 28 years. I was selling frozen croissant dough for a living and realized just how impossible it was for me to make a meaningful life in a marketplace like that. I knew only that I believed, with the fervor of a 23-year-old, in books and their power to enhance one’s life. So I switched gears, returned to the DC area and took the first library job I could find—it was here. I had thought of getting a degree in library science, but in the end, I decided that the relationship I was having with the books and scholars as an amateur and as a professional employee offered me a quality of life that suited my skills and disposition; it offered contentment in curiosity. I came first as a circulation assistant, became a cataloger, moved over to work with the Folger Institute, and then started managing the Library’s Fellowships program. The Folger has been a very happy haven for me, and that’s part of why I am so grateful to help it do the same thing for others.

What’s the scope of the Folger’s Fellowships program? Who is eligible, what sort of work does it support?

The Fellowships program had existed in a small way since the 1950s but it really took its current form in 1985 with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, to whom the institution is deeply indebted. It is now a program central to the Folger’s mission. The program is dedicated to  putting scholars and collections together and to generating cross-disciplinary conversations between them. It’s exciting when scholars whose work is seemingly unrelated discover that they are using the same primary sources to different ends or when one Fellow can direct another Fellow to a resource the latter hadn’t known about. It is really fun for me when I see a new light behind a Fellow’s or Reader’s eye upon hearing what another scholar is making of their own work. I just love the connections people make when they research here. The program is an international one, and serves any scholar—senior, junior, independent—who has a project relevant to the collections and who has the Ph.D. at the time of application. The program supports all ranges of work: editorial projects, history, literature, you name it. To see the types of research that have been funded, you can browse the lists of Fellows on the website.  I do have this fantasy that in the near future we will have at least one Fellowship for a dissertation candidate and one for a creative writer, playwright, or novelist. That fantasy may be further away than I’d like but as you can already tell, I’m a bit of a dreamer.

What advice do you have for Fellowship applicants?

I advise applicants to know the collections and know what they need to use while here. Many come in advance of submitting an application to do preliminary research. Potential applicants do not need to be Readers before they become Fellows, but they are well served if they include references to which items they need to use in their applications. I think there seems to be a trend of thought that if an applicant has EEBO (Early English Books Online) at their home institution they don’t need to come take up residence and surround themselves with the rare books. That’s just wrong! The Folger understands that a Fellowship is as much about community as it is about time to read and write. One of the ways we try to foster engagement is through the Works-in-Progress series of lunch-time talks by Fellows.

One really important piece of advice about applying is to make sure to get good letters from good people who can back up any claims the applicant makes in the proposal. Good recommenders are good witnesses—they know the field, they know the applicant, and they can help the applicant tell the selection committee why a project is important and why no one but the applicant has what it takes to see it through. Oh, and don’t send portfolio job letters! More information about application procedures and deadlines is online and applicants are more than welcome to contact me directly with questions.

What advice do you have for being a good Fellow?

Are there bad Fellows? A Fellow may just want to maximize the limited time of a 1-month Fellowship (there are other durations) by keeping her head down. We respect that. But I can honestly say that a Fellow has a better experience, and is likely to produce better work, if they engage with the other Fellows, Readers, and Staff here. Good Fellows go out to lunch with each other and go to Tea. Good Fellows tell us things about our collections that we don’t yet know. Once a good Fellow always a good Fellow: one year the Long-term Fellows formed such a collegial bond, despite very different research interests, that each year since, they have collaborated in the group adoption of an item from the collection at the Library’s “Acquisitions Night.” It is just lovely to be reminded that everything the Staff gives to support scholars in their research is appreciated long after the experience.

Do you have any favorite items in the collections?

There are too many to chose from, but I am very fond of a sketch of Venus and Adonis attributed to Agostino Carracci and The Mariner’s Mirrour.

detail from Carracci’s Venus and Adonis

What do you do in your spare time?

I’m moderately obsessed with baseball and the Nationals—at this writing, there are only less than 3 days before pitchers and catchers report to Spring training. And, as the dreamer, I have a fantasy of one day being “ukulele day” at the ball park, where they’d give out free ukes and the fans would all play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at the seventh inning stretch—much better than bobblehead day.


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