The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

From Stage to E-page: Theater Archives at the Folger Library

[This post was first delivered as a talk at the 2012 conference of the Shakespeare Association of America as part of a session called “The Once and Future Performance Archive.”]

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC opened in 1932. It is representative of a private institution whose collections were very much shaped by the interest of its founders, Henry and Emily Folger. Fortunately for theater historians, the Folgers were not only attracted to Shakespeare but had a personal interest in the theater which dated from their college days and was sustained throughout their years of collecting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This past year we took a long hard look at the Collection Development Policy and tweaked it to reinforce the kinds of deep collecting begun by the Folgers, but also to think about ways we want to enhance what they began with an eye to the future. 

The Folgers were especially interested in the development of the English theater in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but also the nineteenth-century American stage. Most of our 250,000 playbills and 2000 promptbooks were collected by them, as well as scrapbooks, music, and theatrical realia—including statues, stage props, and some costumes—and thousands of prints and photographs of actors and actresses. While the Folgers left no rationale or principles for their collecting, it is obvious that they realized the enhanced research value of comprehensive collecting: 82 copies of the First Folio, for example, instead of one or two; over 200 volumes of manuscript records from Drury Lane and Covent Garden theaters, as well as many volumes of playbills from these theaters; 33 boxes of manuscript material relating to Augustin Daly’s New York theater—which was new in the Folgers’ time—along with a number of extra-illustrated volumes recording Daly’s Shakespearean productions. They also collected heavily in materials by and related to David Garrick, the man who brought Shakespeare back onto the eighteenth-century stage. In recent years, the library has added to these core collections, partly through purchases—especially related to Garrick and his era—but also through a couple of important gifts of theatrical and Shakespearean realia, from Mrs. Babette Craven of New York and Mr. Thomas McCall of North Carolina.

a sample of materials from the Augustin Daly collection; click on image to be taken to related items in our Digital Image Collection

No collections are useful, however, unless they are accessible, and the sheer variety and abundance of theater collections make them a particular problem. It appears that in the case of the Folger Shakespeare Library, some initial sifting and organizing was done in the 1950s by George Winchester Stone and other members of the longtime project that produced The London Stage, published in 11 volumes from 1960 to 1968. This was a case where researchers themselves initiated the collection sorting. Only after that project did Folger staff begin making paper finding aids for the theatrical scrapbook collection, the playbills, and Shakespeare-related music. Today the Library is still living with a hierarchy of access points ranging from 3-ring binder and card files to online finding aids and digital images.

Let me for a few moments’ focus on playbills, one of the most challenging holdings in any theater collection.

selected playbills from the Folger collections

Ours live in boxes shelved by theater, or in scrapbooks where they were bound years ago. By their very nature they are fragile and easily torn. Because there are so many of them—about 250,000 at the Library—they defy any kind of intense indexing without a major grant. About 15 years ago we considered using optical imaging to scan them, but at that time the text-recognition software was not good enough to capture the variety of typefaces used on most playbills. Even if the technology were now available, we would need a hefty grant to pursue such a project, and it is not at the top of our priority list. That said, our playbills are more accessible than most because of detailed indexing by place and date in a large card file made a number of years ago. In addition, a staff member created a typed index by Shakespeare play, kept at the reading room desk. In 2005, about the time we were doing an exhibition on David Garrick, we were fortunate to retain the services and deep knowledge of Joseph Donohue, a noted theater historian who made a Finding Aid of our 552 Garrick playbills, now posted online.  Donohue’s expertise in theater history of this period provided the subject depth that we never could have found in a library staff member. This project is an example of how a scholar-specialist can help a library to tease out the golden nuggets in its own collections.

Screenshot of a record for a production at the Tankard St. Playhouse in July 1741 which contextualizes the performance based on letters written by Garrick at the time to his brother

More recently, another scholar has worked on the large collection of Drury Lane account books from which he gleaned all sorts of information about benefit nights and other aspects of running the theater. While we have an online Finding Aid for this material, we do not have more detailed indexing by personal name or play. Processing at such a level demands grant monies, and libraries are required to prioritize their projects.

Screenshot of an entry for the prompter's Journal from 1812 to 1818 which includes notes about the performances; as well as entries for a Delivery Book and Bills and Receipts for such expenses as wardrobe, stage properties, printing and food

In recent years, the Folger has received two major cataloging grants, one from the Mellon Foundation to catalog our manuscript collection online and one from the NEH to catalog and digitize 10,000 images from our rich Shakespeare graphic collection. In addition, we are now in the second year of an NEH grant to catalog all of our vast Shakespeare printed book collection online. Let’s briefly take a look at those projects.

Many of the Finding Aids that we have developed recently and made available online were funded by the Mellon manuscripts grant, and part of the work was also done by interns as special projects. Because of the Mellon funding, it is now also easy to find item-level information for correspondence relating to a variety of theatrical figures. One example is Eva Maria, wife of David Garrick. In the early 1990s the Library purchased a large collection of manuscripts related to her and her circle, but the collection’s finding aid did not appear online until the manuscript cataloging project was funded. Now, in addition to the record for the collection, there are separate records for each letter. For an individual actor such as famed comedian Dorothy Jordan, it is possible to access information from our online catalog on all letters associated with her from a variety of collections, including that of Eva Maria.

The next step in such a search would be adding images of Dorothy Jordan, and many of those are accessible through our digital image database, partly funded as the Picturing Shakespeare project. We have over 50,000 images available freely to anyone in the world. A search on Dorothy Jordan brings up 9 pictures, including this portrait and these wonderful pieces of theatrical realia:

selected Dorothy Jordan items from our Digital Image Collection; click on image to be taken to full collection

Staying in the 18th century, if we do a search on David Garrick we’ll come up with over 300 images of items ranging from letters and other manuscripts to pictures of Garrick in and out of role, and more realia related to him. If we choose one of these—the French caricature of Garrick—we can read a detailed description of the item and do a further search on “Actors, 18th-century, depicted,” which results in over 500 images.

French caricature of David Garrick; click to see in the Digital Image Collection

Also in this database are digital versions of almost all of the Folger’s Shakespeare Quartos, and a few other editions as well. For example, Garrick’s marked-up copy of Tonson’s 1734 Midsummer Night’s Dream.

pages 8-9 of Garrick's annotated copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream

The record in Hamnet references a Garrick manuscript, W.b.469, that contains nine items related to this production. It also provides a link to the BookReader View where you can turn the pages and see Garrick’s cuts, additions, and annotations. Under an NEH grant, we are currently cataloging all of our Shakespeare editions online, which will make it easier to discover interesting provenance, among other kinds of information. So for example, not only do we have a copy of the Second Folio owned by Garrick, but we also have Garrick’s copies of Rowe’s 1709 edition, Capell’s 1768 edition, and an edition published in 1747. All of these eighteenth-century Shakespeare editions have recently been added to our online catalog as part of the grant project. Detailed records are created for all editions, including editors, printers and publishers, illustrators, engravers, and of course provenance information. 1

Where are we going from here? Our recently revised Collection Development Policy shows us continuing to collect selectively in areas that are already strong at the Folger (British and American promptbooks, playbills, photographs, posters, programs, etc.) and to maintain and add to our archives of material related to productions in the Folger Theatre. Two areas we have decided to expand are adding selectively to our collection of papers of Shakespearean actors, directors, and theaters; and collecting born-digital material, primarily in English.

We have already acted on the first of these initiatives. I am happy to announce today that we have just acquired the papers of Lynn Redgrave, which include an abundance of material related to her stellar acting family. The second of these initiatives represents a new direction for the Library and will involve enhancing our information storage capabilities and devoting cataloging time to providing online records of this media so that it can be easily found. We are also in the process of enhancing the descriptive data in our image database so that images are indexed more fully. And as we’ve already discovered, “if you offer it, they will come”—we want to make our collections as transparent as possible for all of you, your students, and many like you to come.

Lynn Redgrave in An Evening with Lynn Redgrave: Reminiscences of the Redgrave Family on the Shakespearean Stage (Folger Theatre, 1991)


  1. For more on this grant, see the series of posts written by grant cataloger Carrie Smith.


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