First Monday Library Chat: Folger Shakespeare Library

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC has one of the most significant collections of English Renaissance books and manuscripts in the world. Today I am talking with Dr. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts.

As Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger, you oversee approximately 60,000 manuscripts, with the wide range of sources. What are some of your institutional priorities for the manuscript collection at this time?

Our institutional priorities are two-fold: grow the collection, and continue to make it more accessible.

To that end, our goal is to acquire manuscripts that provide a window into society in early modern England, and beyond that, any manuscript, typescript, or other unpublished item that relates to Shakespeare up to the present day. Before we purchase a manuscript, we always ask ourselves: What is its current or future research value? How does it relate to other manuscripts, books, and visual materials in the collection? Our collection development policy for manuscripts provides further detail.

Katherine Packer, fl. 1639 A book of very good medicines
MS V.a.387 – Katherine Packer, fl. 1639
A book of very good medicines

Accessibility involves every division at the Folger. Conservators regularly stabilize, mend, and conserve manuscripts so that readers can access them and the public can see them in exhibitions. Our Photography and Digital Imaging department adds new images of manuscripts to our digital image database on a weekly basis. Our Acquisitions department makes new acquisitions available as quickly as humanly possible. Our rare materials cataloger, Nadia Seiler, does a great job of describing manuscripts in Hamnet (our catalog) and in our finding aids database. Beyond that, we highlight manuscripts on a regular basis in our research blog, The Collation, and through other social media. Directors of Folger Institute seminars are always encouraged to use manuscripts in their classes, and in general, we talk about them whenever we are given the opportunity!

Congratulations on your IMLS grant for Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO)!  Can you give us a project overview and an update on where you’re at now?

Thank you — we were so excited and honored to receive the grant! EMMO is a project to transcribe all of our early modern English manuscripts and make them available in a searchable database alongside digital images and catalog records for each item. They will be keyword searchable, but also searchable by many other categories. A brief overview of EMMO can be found on the Folger’s research blog, The Collation. Of course, EMMO will include transcriptions of all of our receipt books, which we hope will really push research forward in a variety of ways.

We are still in the very early stages of the grant — hiring a project manager, two project paleographers, assessing the needs of our users, and talking to potential partners about software development.

Last month, I interviewed Jen Wolfe of the University of Iowa’s DIY History about crowdsourcing manuscript transcriptions. By comparison, the Folger is taking a more hands-on approach to crowdsourcing. I suppose this is partly because secretary hand can be very difficult to read, but can you talk a bit more about your thoughts on the training and standards required for transcribing?

I love DIY History, and I hope that our crowdsourcing platform is as successful! Our biggest challenge is figuring out a way to get the right manuscripts to the right transcribers. The majority of our early modern manuscripts are written in English secretary hand, which requires training in order to learn how to read accurately. There are plenty of good online paleography tutorials out there; in particular, the ones at Cambridge, the National Archives (UK), Scottish Handwriting, and a new one connected to Oxford’s Bodleian Library. English paleography is also taught at a number of places, including the Folger, the Huntington Library, and University of Virginia’s Rare Book School.

For EMMO, we are thinking about developing some sort of game with different levels–each time you get to a higher level, more manuscripts of increasing difficulty are made available to you to transcribe. Obviously, the number of “citizen humanists” we attract will be smaller than most crowdsourcing projects because of the special skills involved, but we believe that if people are interested, they can learn and contribute. And we’ll provide a simple set of guidelines for making semi-diplomatic transcriptions.

We would LOVE if the readers of this blog would volunteer to share transcriptions with us (partial ones are okay) in whatever form they have, or incorporate transcription into their coursework, or become some of our crowdsourcing superheroes! We will let people know via our research blog and social media when we are ready for crowdsourcers, but feel free to contact me before then if you have transcriptions that are ready to go.

Could you tell us about the scope of the Folger’s collection of recipe books? Are you still collecting in this area?

I just did an advanced search in our catalog, Hamnet, for the form/genre term “Cookbooks” and material type “Manuscript” and got 74 hits. I did another search with the form/genre term “Medical Formularies” and material type “Manuscript” and got 114 hits. Obviously, many of our recipe books have both genre terms attached to their records, but that gives you a rough estimate: over one hundred medical and culinary recipe books, ranging in date from ca. 1550 to ca. 1800.

We acquire a few recipe books every year — they are a big strength of our collection and one that is important for us to grow. They provide such a wide variety of research opportunities.

Cookery and medicinal recipes, ca. 1675-ca. 1750
MS V.a.429 – Cookery and medicinal recipes, ca. 1675-ca. 1750

Several years ago, Adam Matthews produced a fantastic microfilm collection of Folger manuscript recipe books, for which blog editor Elaine Leong wrote the introduction. Now that online digitization is more common than microfilm, are you considering updating this?

The microfilm collection is a great way for people to access our recipe books, and I often point people to Elaine’s helpful introduction to it online. It includes 89 recipe books, but we have acquired many others since then so it is no longer complete. Our long-term strategy for EMMO is to digitize and transcribe the entire early modern portion of the manuscript collection, so at some point, users will be able to see and read everything in one place. Here’s a link to the recipe book images currently in our digital image database.

 Choyce receits collected of the book of Receits, of the lady Vere Wilkinson, 1673/74
MS V.a.612 –
Choyce receits collected of the book of Receits, of the lady Vere Wilkinson, 1673/74

How do recipe books feature in some of your public programming events?

Rebecca Laroche curated a great exhibition at the Folger in 2011 called “Beyond Home Remedy: Women, Medicine, and Science”, which included many of our recipe books. She teamed up with the Smithsonian to create a video on the science of the syrup of violets.

Another recent exhibition, in 2009, also featured recipe books with recipes for sleep: “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”.

We welcome ideas for other ways to feature recipe books. The EMMO transcriptions will certainly provide many more opportunities to share their contents!

Thanks so much for the interesting interview, Heather! If you’re interested in featuring a library on the First Monday Library Chat, please email Michelle DiMeo .


One thought on “First Monday Library Chat: Folger Shakespeare Library”

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