A Brief Tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library's Digital Treasures

How do you make a repository of books and manuscripts live online?
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The old reading room of the Folger Shakespeare Library, complete with Shakespeare-themed stained glass depicting the Seven Ages of Man from Jacques' monologue in As You Like It (Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library)

On a recent tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library, here in Washington, DC, I had the pleasure of seeing, in person, one of the library's 82 First Folios:

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

This particularly Folio is graced by the doodles of one Elizabeth Okell, about whom little is known. She couldn't have been much older than eight at the time she left her mark:

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

The library's holdings extend far beyond Shakespeare's works to encompass an entire universe whose center is Shakespeare. 

There are maps of London from Shakespeare's time, such as this beauty by Czech artist Wenceslaus Hollar. This panel was supposed to be a part of a larger, multiple-sheet map, but soon after Hollar finished this section, London burned, and the bigger project was never completed. This is the only bird's-eye-view map of London from that period.

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

I saw newspapers, like this one whose title has been edited by a reader, re-rendering "The Moderate" as "The Immoderate Rogue" (a sort of 17th-century "FTFY"):

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

And the library has Queen Elizabeth's bible, bound in beautiful velvet:

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

But luckily for you, one does not need to go to the Folger Library in DC to see these pieces of history; they live online as well. And, in some cases, online they are even more enchanting.

Take, for example, the Wenceslaus Hollar map. In person, it's lovely, but online, it's amazing. Go ahead and click, and then zoom, zoom, zoom way in and appreciate its details. You can't see this in person, at least not without a magnifying glass.

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

In physical form, all of this lives deep below the Folger's grand reading room in the library's vault. Rows upon rows of sliding, industrial bookcases line this fluorescently lit, aggressively chilly, cavern.

Courtesy Folger Shakespeare Library

I arrived at the vault a few weeks ago, guided by Sarah Werner, the Folger's new (and first) Digital Media Strategist. As you can see, Werner's challenge won't be in figuring out how to digitize the library's holdings -- much has already been done to that end. Instead, her work will be in connecting all the different parts into a coherent system.

"Right now," Werner explains, "there's the catalog over here, and then the digital images over here, and then there's a blog over here, and then there's this thing over here. We need something that unites these products, and makes them more usable." 

Underlying this statement is something that everyone knows, but something that can get lost in the shuffle as libraries digitize their collections: Libraries are more than their holdings -- they are facilitators for making those holdings useful, and usefulness comes from a library's staff, its physical space, and how its holdings are organized. So while the library's online holdings are impressive, right now the experience of discovering them falls short of what the physical library provides.

"We have astonishing, amazing stuff, a lot of which you can't see elsewhere," Werner tells me. "We have expertise that is not comparable -- the curators are incredibly knowledgeable, our conservation lab, the acquisitions folks, the cataloguers -- these are all people who are experts in their field."

"There is so much that we offer to people who can make it to the site," she continues, "but not everyone can. Not everyone has the time, or the travel funds; not everybody has the credentials. And the fact of the matter is, we have two reading rooms. That's how much space we have. ... There are physical limitations on how many people can come here."

And so, instead, she's figuring out how to build a space for that experience online -- an experience that is more than the presence of items, but a system for discovery, for seeing an object's context, for understanding what those objects mean.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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