Henry Clay Folger, a millionaire Standard Oil executive, devoted a great deal of his life to the acquisition of the largest collection of Shakespearean materials in the world. Folger purchased the land where the library stands today a parcel at a time, and he acquired the entire property by 1928. Paul P. Cret, the architect, designed the building in the modern classical style, to blend with its neighbors on Capitol Hill including the Capitol, Library of Congress, and the House and Senate Office Buildings. Construction began in November of 1929. Mr. Folger died two weeks after the cornerstone was laid in 1930. His will appointed the Trustees of Amherst College to administer the library, and it remains in their hands today.
The Folger Shakespeare Library is a major center for scholarly research. It houses the world's largest collection of Shakespeare's printed works. In addition, it contains other rare Renaissance books and manuscripts on all disciplines. Perhaps the most famous work in the Folger Shakespeare collection is the first collected edition of Shakespeare's works, printed in 1623 and known as the First Folio. Out of a world supply of 238 First Folios, Folger collected 79 copies, one of which is always on display in the Great Hall. He also acquired 58 copies of the Second Folio of 1632, 24 of the Third Folio of 1663-64, and 36 of the Fourth Folio of 1685. The library also owns the world's largest collection of 18th and 19th century editions of Shakespeare, including copies owned by Washington, Adams, and Lincoln. The entire collection consists of approximately 280,000 books and manuscripts, and 27,000 paintings, drawings, prints, and engravings. The library's north wall features nine elaborate bas reliefs of famous scenes from Shakespeare, by sculptor John Gregory. The Reading Room is open to scholars and graduate students only. During the Library's annual celebration of Shakespeare's birthday in April, the public has access to this room. The Folder Shakespeare Library also contains the Elizabethan Theater and Great Hall which offer continual public programs such as theater productions, music performances, literary readings, lectures and exhibits. The newest exhibit is the Shakespeare Gallery, a multimedia computer installation which offers visitors a fascinating look at over 250 treasurers from the Folger collections plus readings and excerpts from Shakespeare's plays by noted actors, including Sir Derek Jacobi. There is also a gift shop in the building.
The Folger Shakespeare Library is located at 201 East Capitol St., SE. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. It is closed on all Federal holidays. Tours are regularly scheduled and no prior arrangements are necessary. Metro station: Capitol South or Union Station