The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Q & A: Eric Johnson, Director of Digital Access

Eric Johnson 5/29/13Eric Johnson is the Folger’s new Director of Digital Access, heading the new Digital Media and Publications division. He has developed successful projects and programs for U.S. Department of State, the Washington Times, the World Bank, the state of Georgia, and other public- and private-sector organizations. He is best known in the Shakespearean community as the creator of Open Source Shakespeare, one of the most widely-used online resources in the field. Eric holds an M.A. in English and a B.A. in history, and he serves on the board of advisors for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at George Mason University. He is also a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Welcome to the Folger! How much of a change has it been from your past positions?

The Folger is such a unique place that it’s difficult to make a comparison. It’s a less frantic pace than an online agency, and less bureaucratic than a government entity. The atmosphere is cerebral, but pedantry seems to be tacitly discouraged. Physically, it’s certainly the most beautiful building I’ve ever worked in.

It’s hard to be entirely objective about the Folger, since it’s been part of my mental landscape for most of my life. I grew up across the Potomac River, about 15 miles south of the Folger, and my first contact with the Library was in elementary school, when my class came on a field trip. I acted in a theater festival here when I was in high school, and I have seen many productions here over the years (and reviewed several of them when I was working for a newspaper). And when I was building Open Source Shakespeare, I received helpful advice from Georgianna Ziegler, the Folger’s head of reference, and Jim Kuhn, the head of collection information services.

I haven’t had any huge surprises yet, and I don’t expect to encounter any. That said, I am still deepening my knowledge about the Library, and I expect to continue doing that for a long time.

So what does the Digital Media and Publications division do?

My position, and this division, was created in response to the Folger’s new five-year strategic plan, which the Board of Governors just approved in June. The first strategic goal is to “Build the Research Library of the 21st Century,” and even without knowing the details, you can imagine that technological initiatives are a significant part of that.

That means deploying tools to improve access to the collection, form scholarly online communities, and enhance interactions with a vast array of texts. All of these things won’t happen at once, but we will gradually build the infrastructure (human and technical) to support them. Right now, we are working to complete the Folger Digital Texts, which make our high-quality editions of Shakespeare available for reading, research, or performance at no charge.

The division also manages the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions (from which the Folger Digital Texts are drawn), as well as Shakespeare Quarterly. Both of these publications were moved from the Research Division during our recent reorganization. This will allow the Folger Institute to absorb the Research Division’s programs and focus on supporting scholars and scholarship.

The Folger Editions and Shakespeare Quarterly will maintain their editorial structure. The Folger Editions will continue to be edited by Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, who have devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to this project, which is now deep into its third decade. They are also providing intensive support and guidance to the Folger Digital Texts team.

Shakespeare Quarterly is the pre-eminent journal in the field, and the Folger is completely committed to maintaining that position. Interim editor Gail Kern Paster, who edited SQ for 11 years (including 8 years while she was the Folger’s Director), is leading the editorial operations. The SQ board will continue to review submissions and contribute their incomparable expertise.

Given the ongoing changes in the publishing world, which open up new opportunities for electronic distribution and collaboration, it is natural to group SQ with initiatives that will take advantage of those developments.

Is focusing on digital instead of physical objects a big departure for the Folger?

It’s an outgrowth, not a departure. The Folger began with an astonishingly valuable collection of Shakespeare-related materials, and those will always be central to the library’s identity. Everything the Folger does—research, theater, education, etc.—ultimately derives from the collection. As new media arise, Shakespeare’s works inevitably move into them. That was happening with radio and film when the Folger opened in 1932, and it will continue to happen as long as people see value in those works.

Any favorite things about working at the Folger so far? 

It’s difficult to form a concise answer to this question. In my first several days at the Folger, I watched rehearsals for our superb production of Twelfth Night, carefully leafed through a copy of the First Folio, and took my family to Shakespeare’s 449th birthday festival. It would be hard to imagine a better way to begin a job.

I don’t think I could ever tire of working in this gorgeous building. I’ve been taking my laptop to work in the Reading Room at least once a week, just to soak up the aesthetics.

When I was interviewing for the position, I saw that the employees I met seemed to be excited to come to work—even those who had been around for many years. That affection carries over to the many people that the Folger interacts with.

Finally, I love our new institutional mission, which is really not “new” so much as renewed. I want to lead our division so our work can be worthy of the Folger’s legacy, and to help the library meet its goals. I’m honored to have the opportunity to do that.

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