For all things Shakespeare in England, scholars and devotees go to Stratford-Upon-Avon or London (see The Shakespeare Globe experience). But in the United States, they come to Washington, DC, to the Folger Shakespeare Library, situated behind the Library of Congress.
A gift to the American people from industrialist Henry Folger and his wife Emily, the library is the final resting place of an enormous collection of Shakespeareana collected by the Folgers over 50 years. Opened in 1932 with 2,000 books focusing purely on Shakespeare, the library is now an independent research centre with a wider mandate of the English Renaissance. It houses approximately 260,000 books; 60,000 manuscripts; 250,000 playbills; some 90,000 prints, drawings, photographs, and paintings; and a wealth of other materials, including musical instruments, costumes, and films.
An exhibition hall is open to the public, and displays books and materials from the collection. On show is one of several First Folios the Folger owns, as well as a unique Elizabethan funeral scroll.
The reading rooms are restricted to vetted scholars, but I was lucky to get in on a reservations-only tour during the lunch break. The old reading room is designed much like an English Tudor manor hall, with lots of ornate woodwork, an enormous fireplace, embroidered reading chairs and grand study tables. The room is overseen by a reproduction of a famous Shakespeare bust on the one end and is illuminated by an enormous stained glass window on the other. The new reading room, designed in a more spare, contemporary style, was added in 1979.
A theatre is also part of the complex, where Shakespeare and Elizabethan plays are performed, but it was between performances when I visited. I’ll try and get tickets the next time I’m in Washington, DC.