The Much-Anticipated Folger Seminar Post!

So, I’ve been promising a post on the Folger seminar I’m taking for weeks now (three weeks, to be precise) and since university let out early today and I expect to have no time to work on my dissertation between now and the arrival of the family, I thought “what the hell, let’s do this thing.” Not that it’s a chore–I’m thrilled to be able to share this experience with anyone who cares to have a read-through. The Folger is a pretty doggoned magical place for pre-modern Anglo-British scholars. Bear in mind that I am writing this post for a general audience that includes people who have never done archival work before and don’t know much, if anything, about how special collections like that at the Folger are used or how fellowships work, so I’ve pitched it accordingly in terms of tone. If you want a specialist’s points of view, I’m sure there are many of them scattered across the Internet.

Without further ado, let’s begin with pretty pictures because, pictures. Here is the Folger Shakespeare Library, exterior:

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Here’s the entryway towards the Reading Room, looking just past the guard desk. folger 5

On the left, the doors leading into the Reading Room. On the right, the gorgeous Reading Room. Just imagine getting to spend days on end thinking in this space!

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There are charming quirky spots throughout this building. Downstairs on the way to the stacks, for instance, you run into Macbeth graffiti….folger 9 folger 10

And then of course, there are the stacks themselves. Books to the left of you, books to the right of you, as far as the eye can see–and ONLY about things that I love to study. SWOON!

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I stayed in one of the Folger guest properties, an adorable townhouse right around the corner from the library.

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Once inside, you’re greeted with pretty, homey little touches, like this window vase of sunflowers:

Folger house 1

Each guest room has its own little container for foodstuffs, stored on a shelf next to the kitchen.

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And the downstairs common area includes the kitchen and a sitting space. Very nice and cozy for late-night chats about Shakespeare, or whatever else happens to come up in conversation.

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SO, with the pictures safely out of the way, it’s on to describing what it is like to go into this space as a seminar participant and NOOB Folger fellow/reader.

First, you fill out a form and have your picture taken for your reader card. You cannot go into the library proper without one of these cards. Scholars wear them around their necks on bright-red lanyards. I don’t have a photo of this because the week I received my card, which was the same week I took all the photos, they were out of lanyards. We got ours the following week.

When you’re preparing to work in the library, you can’t take large bags, food or drink of any kind, or inkpens, white out or corrective tape, or sharp implements that could damage the materials housed there. You may take your laptop, pencils, pads of paper, and any personal books you need. You are also allowed to take pictures with your digital camera. You carry your personal effects in a plastic, see-through bag like this one:

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Everything at the Folger is cataloged and searchable via the online research tool Hamnet (Which looks initially like a Hamnet/ Hamlet pun, but as a scholar friend of mine reminded me, Hamnet was the name of Shakespeare’s son.) They also have a digital search engine for many of their images, which is called Luna. The modern books housed at the Folger are available on open stacks shelves, and you can take them and charge them to your account and use them in the library at will. Nothing, of course, leaves the building that didn’t come in with you.

To obtain rare documents, you fill out a call slip with your name, the item’s call number, author,  title, and date, and give it to one of the amazingly friendly librarians, who will then go hunt the items you’ve requested down in the archives and rare books collection. If items are not in the conservation lab being treated for damage, you then have them delivered right to your table, if you are working in the library, or you can pick them up at the desk later. Last week, for instance, I examined the coronation souvenir book created by John Ogilby for Charles II printed in 1662, a disaster pamphlet about the Northampshire fire of 1675, an eyewitness account of the London fire of 1666, a sermon preached in response to the fire imploring the English to get their act together and end God’s wrath against them, and a Bible from the same year. It was incredible to handle all of these original, period artifacts with my own (carefully washed!) hands. I honestly have no idea what I am going to do when I am finally sitting in front of a medieval manuscript, but this was a pretty amazing preview of coming attractions.

While you are working in the main reading room, from time to time you find yourself in the odd position of being looked at as though you were on display in a zoo or museum. There are tours conducted in the exhibition hall directly adjacent to the reading room, and the two are separated by a wall that includes curtained windows. Every so often throughout the day, a docent will pull the curtain aside so the visitors can get a look at the “scholars from all over the world conducting original research with rare materials they can’t access anywhere else.” (Yes, it’s weird to think that someone could find what we do so exotic. Yes, it’s also kind of freaking awesome to be one of those rare birds, the pre-modern scholar. You do eventually stop noticing, once you’re absorbed in what you’re doing.)

When you are ready to leave the Reading Room, you have to stop at the desk to pick up an exit card, and then hand the exit card to the individual manning the desk just outside the Reading Room doors. It is embarrassing to forget your exit card. Ask me how I know.

Every day, the Folger has a standing tradition of 3:00 tea. Everyone, from the readers and fellows to the desk assistants and librarians, traipses downstairs to the tea room, where coffee, tea, and some sort of cookie or other confection are served. You all sit and stand about drinking tea and chatting, and it’s a great chance to get to meet and speak with scholars and actors with a wide range of interests related to the pre-modern period. The people I have recently been meeting are of course from the current seminars being held at the Folger this spring, but also research fellows working on manuscript and print culture, the transition from late medieval to early modern drama, the depiction of witches in early modern pamphlets, and so forth–it’s a wonderfully mixed bag of interesting topics!

SO, what is being a Folger seminar participant like?

I am amazingly fortunate, in that I am working in a seminar being conducted by a scholar whose work has been enormously influential for my thinking on several matters, Dr. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen of the George Washington University. The seminar is called “The Scale of Catastrophe: Ecology and Transition, Medieval to Early Modern” and here is the description from the Folger website:

Medieval and early modern texts share a vocabulary for catastrophe that intermixes deluge (the Flood that only Noah and his family survived) and incineration (the advent of apocalypse and the purging of the mortal world). Although one was in the distant past and never supposed to arrive again, the other to blaze forth at some uncertain future, both fire and flood tended to be invoked to mark historical breaks and anxious moments of transition. This seminar will pair medieval texts fascinated by survival in the face of cataclysm with early modern ones that carry the stories they offer into new realms. Participants will investigate the scale of catastrophe stories, where scale is both size (local versus cosmic) and structure, a ladder (scala) that arranges nature into a hierarchy. They will also consider the gender of catastrophe, and map whether women tell different stories against and within catastrophe from men. Readings frequently pair medieval texts with early modern ones that reinterpreted them. Medieval primary texts may include Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History, Des Grantz Geanz, the Chester play of Noah’s Flood, and Chaucer’s “Franklin’s Tale” and “Miller’s Tale.” Early modern readings may include Hooke’s Micrographia, Raleigh’s Discovery of Guyana, Holinshed’s Chronicles, and several plays by Shakespeare before considering Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

We meet for three and a half hours (with a half-hour break for tea) once weekly, from January through April. There are eleven participants in this seminar, from a wide range of universities. Most are Renaissance/Early Modern literature scholars, but we also have a historian and a few medievalists besides myself in the mix. Most of us either have completed or are shortly to complete our comprehensive examinations, or are at some stage of dissertating. (This is not always the case. Folger seminars attract a wide range of scholars from every career point, from graduate students through full professors.)

So, what do we do? Well, in essence and layman’s terms, the seminar is a think tank. The director of the seminar is working through some ideas or questions, or has recently worked through some ideas and questions, and is testing this thinking against the thinking of other scholars from a variety of institutions and intellectual backgrounds. The participants, in turn, bring their own areas of expertise and the concerns and issues they are thinking through in their own work to bear on discussion of the seminar readings. Through these seminar readings and discussions, everyone develops a common body of thinking that is infused by all of the different backgrounds in the room. Then, this knowledge is brought to bear in critical examination of a wide variety of the Folger’s special collections holdings–images, texts, pamphlets, letters, and the like–to further test and refine the thinking that each individual is doing as well as to build a scholarly consensus within the group about the seminar topic.

In the end, if all goes according to plan, seminar participants (and presumably the director as well) walk away ready to continue to develop these ideas and thinking patterns, preferably towards lectures for courses, papers for conferences, and ultimately, publication in a scholarly journal or of a monograph or dissertation, that makes use of the Folger holdings. In short–we are at the beginning stages of knowledge production. What we are thinking could, in time, become part of and influence the thinking that goes on in the wider academic realm. That’s pretty heady stuff. It’s also a huge responsibility, honor, and privilege.

Here are some of the questions we have been grappling with in our seminar so far:

What constitutes a catastrophe on a local or universal level?

How do we think about the scale of catastrophe in its various guises– in a geographical sense? In a historical sense? In a temporal sense?

What is the difference between being a victim of catastrophe, and being a spectator of catastrophe?

Can proximity elicit an awareness of otherness or erase the need for classification? What happens to this relationship (between human and animal, for instance) in times of catastrophe?

How do you think beyond the existence of you, in order to communicate to the future an experience of catastrophe? (i.e. a nuclear disaster & etc.)

How do you communicate across catastrophe, and what tales are told and/or preserved beyond catastrophe?

Why is catastrophe so beautiful? Why is it so personal and universal at the same time?

Do you have to have gaps in a historical record in order to have history at all, or to make history work?

And that is just three weeks’ worth of questions, and just scraping the surface of the discussions we have held. We typically are reading about 4-5 documents, both primary source materials and secondary, theoretical texts–literary theory, ecocriticism, animal studies, poetics, sustainability studies, and ontology, among other critical paradigms–for each session. By the end of a session, your brain is reeling: I’m high on all of the thinking! I’m exhausted from all of the thinking! I need to do more thinking right now before I lose it! I can’t think about anything else right now because I’m in overload!

I have personally already seen the benefit of the thinking we have done in my teaching and in my approach to my dissertation. While teaching Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls in my Introduction to Poetry class, I brought to bear some of the Folger discussion from that week on animal rights (avian rights), human rights, what makes a human, human and an animal, animal, what is a political creature, and what do the birds really mean in Chaucer’s poem. The students took it and ran, coming up with important insights into the human/other classification and legal questions of rights and authority and agency–questions with direct bearing and real world application in questions of ongoing global human rights and international relations issues.

In terms of my research towards my dissertation, through this seminar I am realizing how important it is to try to distance myself from a wholly anthropocentric view of my topic, to consider the land that produces the raw materials with which the feast is created and sustained, and to consider the animals and plants that comprise those materials,  in order then to deepen my thinking about how feasts mean for the communities that produce them. What happens in times of catastrophe, in which communities cannot come together in feast? This is a huge test of the community, and the individuals in that community. On the other side of a catastrophe, however large or small it may be, the community experiencing it will be irrevocably altered to some degree. What can a feast, or lack of a feast, in a catastrophic literary text tell us about this process of community testing, shifting, and re-forming? Another issue the seminar has brought up is that of the “privilege of affect”–that those who actually experience an event respond to it in different emotional terms than those who are not explicitly involved in it, and that this serves as a natural barrier between those who are directly involved and those who are not that has to be taken into consideration in any ongoing relationship between these groups. This is true for catastrophes; is it also true for other events, like the feast? This is not my dissertation topic itself, but it is important thinking to take into it.

And so…. that’s the Folger so far. If you are an early career graduate student working anywhere within the time frame that the Folger library collections support–that is, late-medieval through about the end of the 17th century, unless you are specifically working with Shakespeare reception studies/ staging practices, in which case it’s good all the way through contemporary scholarship–I definitely recommend trying to get into one of the seminars. It is an invaluable experience across the board–for meeting other scholars, for deepening and enriching your thinking, and for building your archival research skills.


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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3 Responses to The Much-Anticipated Folger Seminar Post!

  1. Samantha says:

    Hi! Long time reader, first time commenter.

    I’m a Duke PhD student in musicology (music history, specializing in the English Reformation) and I seem to be at about the same point in my studies as you. I have really enjoyed and been inspired by your blog for the last year or so, and especially by your recent post about the dramatic shift in process and output that comes with beginning a dissertation project. I’m formulating a prospectus myself at the moment and have been struggling with a similar feeling of spinning my wheels and not producing anything tangible.

    I wanted to especially thank you for this post because I’m in the process of organizing my own research trip at the Folger. It’s so great to have an idea of how the library works. And a standing afternoon tea? Greatest idea ever. Not even the BL had that! My trip will be May 10-14 – is there any chance you’ll also be visiting at that time? I’d love to meet you and chat about our work. And I also have a double-room reservation at the Folger guest house and would truly love to split the cost…do you know how/whether that works?

    Also (I might as well put all of my comments in one place rather than across multiple posts) I’m so incredibly bummed that the SAMLA conference *right here* in Durham is taking place at the same time as the national musicology conference! My work is so interdisciplinary and I’d so have loved sharing it and great conversation with other early modern scholars. Are you directly involved with that conference, or just sharing the CFP?


    • Melissa Ridley Elmes says:

      Hi, Samantha– thanks for your comment! If you call or email the property manager at the Folger and tell her you are interested in sharing the room, she will assign you a roommate if she can–she is very, very nice and accommodating, and they really understand graduate student financial constraints. I won’t be there in May–my fellowship ends in April–but we might be able to arrange a meet-up at some point, since I’m at UNC Greensboro! I’m not directly involved in the SAMLA CFPs, just passing them along as a courtesy to my readers, but I’ll probably attend just to see what it’s like, since it is so close by. Have you considered submitting an abstract for Vagantes, the Medieval Academy of America’s graduate conference? It’s a traveling conference hosted by the MAA grad students and highly interdisciplinary–I met a musicologist, Art Historians, lit and history and language people when I attended who are still Facebook friends and colleagues to this day! Worth a look. :o)

      • Samantha says:

        Fantastic that we’re so close – we should definitely meet up and chat at some point! Perhaps at the start of the summer after things calm down a bit? Unless you’ve any plans to be in Durham/Chapel Hill/Raleigh anytime soon.

        Since my research is early modern, I have no plans to submit for medieval conferences – but I hear that you medievalists really know how to throw a party! Perhaps if there’s one close by, I’d enjoy attending just to listen and learn.

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