Reading Room at the Folger Shakespeare Library – Washington, D.C. - Atlas Obscura
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Washington, D.C.

Reading Room at the Folger Shakespeare Library

Home to a vast and influential collection of Shakespeareana. 

The oil tycoon Henry Clay Folger began collecting Shakespeare’s folios in the late 1880s. Over the following decades, he amassed quite the trove. The library opened in 1932, and the staff continues to collect early English books—reaching all the way back to 1475—and materials about the Bard. Today, its vaults and shelves hold some 260,000 books, plus 60,000 manuscripts, immense reams of playbills, and more.

Researchers cluster in this handsome, wood-paneled room to study the First Folio from 1623, the earliest compilation of Shakespeare’s plays, and a wealth of other rare and valuable materials. The Folger has the the sole surviving first-edition of Titus Andronicus, from 1594, and a host of incunables—books printed before 1501.

The walls are also lined with artwork that pays homage to Shakespeare’s likeness or body of work. The gang’s all here: Puck, Hamlet, Shylock, Macbeth, Anne Page, Iago, Juliet, and many more of the usual suspects appear in paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Look closely at the fan that Henry’s wife, Emily, holds in her portrait, and you’ll notice that it depicts a scene from Henry V

When the lofty reading room gets chilly—all the better to preserve the fragile printed material it holds—visitors can borrow one of the handful of shawls knitted or crocheted by Rosalind Larry, the room’s head of circulation. 

The reading room is also a mausoleum. Folger’s ashes are interred on the east wall, near a painted plaster replica of the limestone bust that tops the Bard’s memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon’s Holy Trinity Church. This reproduction was a little too large for its corner of the reading room, so its elbows were removed, in 1932, to make it fit. 

Admission is generally reserved for researchers, with a few exceptions. One is an annual soiree in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday (other festivities include sword-fighting demonstrations, sonnet readings, and, of course, cake). Visitors can also tag along on a docent-guided tour on Saturdays or Sundays. These are free, but advance registration is required.

Know Before You Go

Docents lead free, hour-long tours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Registration is required; sign up online.