Unique, Unprecedented, “Un-Folger-table”
By Elaine Teng ’12, Senior Editor
Sitting on the plane to Spain, where I will spend my semester, I can’t help but think back to weeks already behind me, the two incredible ones I spent as a fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C. over Interterm.

Many people at Amherst have probably never even heard of the Folger, not to mention the Fellowship. But it is a hidden, priceless treasure unique to the College that more students should try to take advantage of. Because the Folger was founded by Henry Clay Folger, Class of 1879 and is now administered by the College, six lucky juniors and seniors have the opportunity each year to travel to Washington D.C. for two weeks on an all-expenses paid trip to the largest Shakespeare center and one of the premier libraries in the world.

I had never been to Washington D.C. before and that alone was an incentive to apply. After drafting a proposal, surviving an interview and getting lost in the airport, I arrived in our nation’s capital not knowing what to expect. I was immediately blown away by the location of our housing, which was not only a block away from the Folger, but directly across the street from the Library of Congress, down the street from the Supreme Court, Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capitol. The other girls even had a view of the rotunda from their window. We immediately made plans to see it all, which was difficult given the sheer quantity of museums, monuments and other national symbols.

We were greeted at the library by an extremely friendly and warm group of curators, librarians and researchers who, though probably a little overwhelmed by just how excited and giggly we group of college students were, made us feel completely welcome in a place normally populated by people much more proper, serious and qualified than us. I couldn’t believe my luck, and I spent much of the two weeks wondering why anyone would trust me with these valuable resources from the 16th and 17th centuries. Taught by experts in their fields, we made our way through book history, learning how books were printed and bound in the early modern period, how illustrations were made, how to read manuscripts, how to write in the script of the time, how to handle rare material and how books are conserved today. By the end of lessons, we wanted to be scribes, printers, engravers, conservators and curators. We most certainly didn’t want to leave. We were also given a tour of the Folger’s treasures, kept in a vault secure enough to impress the Swiss, which included shelves of Shakespeare’s first folios and quartos, a Bible presented to Queen Elizabeth I and a hunting guide bound in actual deerskin.

Nevertheless, the focus of the Fellowship was still on research, and we each had our own areas to explore. Our topics ranged from Shakespeare to Sir Philip Sidney to Venetian printing, which highlights one of the strengths of the Folger. While it is, indeed, the Shakespeare library, it is somewhat of a misnomer, as it collects nearly everything related to the early modern period, Shakespeare or not. This breadth as well as depth makes it an ideal place for research, as one of my friends could study the physical appearance of Italian Renaissance books, while I could read the actual Shakespeare adaptations from the 18th century. We all came away with pages upon pages of notes, which would prove extremely helpful in thesis writing should we choose to pursue our subjects further. I know that I learned enough to fill a whole semester in just those two weeks, and raised just as many questions as I answered. Most importantly, it allowed me to prove to myself that I really could sit still and concentrate on a single topic for hours at a time, giving me a taste of what life as a researcher or academic could be.

Yet what made the Folger most enjoyable was the sense of community and warmth between all of the people from different backgrounds. I only knew two out of four of my fellow Fellows from Amherst; but by the time we left, we were such a tightly-knit group with so many inside jokes it seemed like we spoke a different language. We also got to know many of the other people at the library through teatime, which is held every day at 3 p.m. and quickly became our favorite time of day. Not only were there delicious cookies and tea, but it also gave everyone at the library a chance to get together and share thoughts and ideas. I heard people trading stories about their discoveries, and met professors from England and Ph.D. students from New York. Research can be a very isolating, lonely activity, but tea allowed everyone to come together as one community dedicated to the same goal.

Whether you are a sonnet-crazy English major or simply interested in a specific aspect of the Renaissance, I highly encourage you to apply to the Folger Fellowship for one of the most memorable, unprecedented and unique experiences available at Amherst. It might sound nerdy, and really, it is. But once you walk into the old reading room, with the magnificent chandeliers above you, centuries of truth and beauty around you and the Bard looking down at you, you won’t regret it.

Issue 12, Submitted 2011-01-26 01:18:45