The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

An evolution of cataloging at the Folger, from 1932 to today

Although the Folger Shakespeare Library officially opened on Shakespeare’s birthday in 1932 and readers began arriving at the Library in early 1933, it wasn’t until later that the idea of a proper card catalog for readers’ use was introduced. For the first few years of the library’s existence, staff relied on Mrs. Folger’s handwritten and typed cards created for each item she and Mr. Folger purchased, detailing the author, short title, place and date of publication, and where it was bought. In addition to Mrs. Folger’s cards, the Library’s annotated copy of Pollard and Redgrave’s Short Title Catalogue of English Books, 1475-1640, various incomplete lists, and staff members’ memories were used to determine whether a book was in the Library, and if it was, where to locate it on the shelves.

One of Mrs Folger's original cards cataloging the collection
One of Mrs Folger’s original cards (cf the modern catalog records for this volume)

Dr. Joseph Quincy Adams, Acting Director of the Folger in 1934 and later Director from 1936 to 1946, realized the Library could not continue to function without a proper card catalog and hired Edwin Eliot Willoughby as Chief Bibliographer in 1935. Dr. Willoughby had a doctoral degree in Elizabethan bibliography and had written a book on the First Folio as well as one on William Jaggard; these qualifications undoubtedly appealed to Dr. Adams. In his Annual Report for 1934-1935, Adams writes: “The appointment of Dr. Edwin E. Willoughby… to assume charge of our rare books, and of cataloguing our collections, nicely rounds out our staff. Dr. Willoughby, it will be generally conceded, is one of the ablest students of Elizabethan bibliography now living” (p. 3).

Willoughby began working at the library on July 1, 1935, and together he and Adams conceived of a unique catalog in which the cards would include extensive bibliographic information in addition to author, title, and subject. They would also include collation, provenance, binding description, title-borders, ornaments, printer’s devices, the names of printers, publishers, and engravers, edition and issue information, as well as any other significant discoveries made by the cataloger. According to the unpublished History of the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1932-1968, written by Giles Dawson (former reference librarian and curator of books and manuscripts at the Folger), Adams and Willoughby were “especially interested in what gave the Library its peculiar value—the unique Shakespeare collection as well as one of the two or three greatest collections of S.T.C. books… These were the books that scholars would come to the Folger Library to use. These books, then, were to be the first catalogued” (p.25).

A card cataloging the 1604 Hamlet
A card cataloging the 1604 Hamlet (cf the book’s online record)

In the Folger Annual Report for 1935-1936, Dr. Willoughby provides an update on the progress of the catalog project and writes that cataloging has begun. He also mentions the “Dick special library mimeographing machine,” which was used to duplicate the cards created at the Folger to send to other libraries. In 1936, as duplication of the cards began, twenty-three libraries, including Harvard, Yale, the Huntington, and the Bodleian, had all signed on to receive the Folger’s STC cards. Because the cataloging was so detailed, the number of cards required to describe a book was often quite large. By 1941, Dr. Adams notes that 539,500 cards had been duplicated, of which 225,800 had been sent to other libraries, and 313,700 had been retained by the Folger for its own catalog.

Today, the card catalog is housed in what was once a rare book vault and is still used by readers. While the large majority of the Folger’s collection is in our online catalog Hamnet, a portion of it, particularly our continental books (see Goran’s helpful post on this point), can only be found in the card catalog. And though it may make a few readers feel a bit nostalgic and others downright confused, it is certainly worth remembering this valuable resource when researching at the Folger.

The card catalog room today
The card catalog room today


  • In case anyone’s wondering what Mr. Folger’s handwriting is doing on one of “Mrs. Folger’s cards” here: the card file is known in-house as “Mrs. Folger’s cards” because she maintained it; she didn’t do all the entries, though. Her writing is more stretched-out and loopy (see for example).

  • A cataloger myself (and an aspiring rare books librarian), I find this history fascinating. I often wonder at what our previous generation catalogers had to do without the wonders of technology giving us the kinds of shortcuts we now have. And when you add all that bibliographic detail for rare books, it seems even more time-consuming to copy cards even with a mimeograph.

  • Melanie

    very nice write up, with lots of interesting info that even I did not know. just a funny note My Dad who was a librarian, for some strange reason had all of us (my siblings) remember “E.E. Willoughby, Chief Bibliographer, Folger Shakespeare Library” My dad was a big fan of Willoughby, and I think mentions him in his masters and (incomplete PHD thesis). this was when I was just a kid. he was thrilled when I got the job at the Folger.

    Hope all is well, say hi to all my friends there.


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