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Gently Mad

Fine Focus

Prior to being named the Eric Weinmann Librarian of the Folger in January, Enniss was head of the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Books Library at Emory University in Atlanta, where he was responsible for a dynamic collection that has been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years, becoming, in the process, one of the leading research centers specializing in twentieth-century literary manuscripts and archives, including major holdings of African American literature. While certainly rich in printed books—the acquisition in 2004 of the 75,000-volume Raymond Danowski Poetry Library is one example—the undisputed strength of the Emory collections is in manuscripts and archives of such giants as William Butler Yeats, James Dickey, Flannery O’Connor, Seamus Heaney, Anthony Hecht, and Alice Walker.

“It has been quite a remarkable transition for me in many ways,” Enniss acknowledged when I asked him to compare going from Emory to the Folger. “I’ve moved from a university special collections to being the librarian for an independent research library. I’ve moved from a collection that was largely focused on manuscripts to a collection that’s greatest strength is in rare books. I’ve moved from collections that were oriented on the twentieth and twenty-first century to collections focused around the sixteenth century. I’ve moved from a collection that measured authors’ archives in linear feet to a collection where the most central author left behind no manuscripts whatsoever.”

While the First Folios are the undisputed centerpiece of the Folger holdings, there is an outstanding collection of Shakespeare plays that appeared in smaller quarto editions, many of them published well before the appearance of the collected works, and thus, in those instances, the earliest surviving texts. Easily the scarcest of these—indeed, it is the rarest Shakespeare quarto in the world, since it survives in this single copy—is the 1594 Titus Andronicus, which Henry Clay Folger bought in 1905 for £2,000 from a Swedish postal worker who had found it among some items he had inherited from his late father, wrapped in two 18th-century Dutch lottery tickets.

While Elizabethan England is clearly the heart of the Folger collections, it was the acquisition by the library in 1938 of an 8,000-volume collection of books printed in England between 1475 and 1640 that broadened the focus to include early modern European history. These rarities—known to bibliographers and collectors as English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) books—had been the property of the late Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth, and they occupy a separate area of their own in the vault; some 3,000 additional volumes from the same time period have been added over the past 70 years, making this one of the strongest collections of its kind in the world, surpassed only by the British Library and the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

Enniss said that to strengthen Folger’s collections further does not necessarily involve discovering unknown materials in the traditional sense, or, for that matter, to be alert to what some might call targets of opportunity. “I think what we need to do is show owners of these materials how much their interests are intertwined with ours. What we are looking for are people who share a common vision with us. So, in the end, you do build a collection of sixteenth and seventeenth century material differently from how you build modern archives, and I’d be the first to say there’s a learning curve involved in all this. But let me assure you that I would not have taken this position if it was just to curate an existing, static collection.” Having said that, he unhesitatingly added—and it was while we were in the vault admiring the wall filled with First Folios—that he had found his “dream job.”

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Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.