Collection development policy

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The Folger’s Collection Development policy describes how Folger curators make decisions about acquiring material. It is a living document that we revisit on a regular basis as we identify new strengths and priorities. The Folger provides this document online to maintain transparency regarding how such decisions are made.

Folger curators actively select material that illuminates the world in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries lived and in which Shakespeare’s plays have been performed and interpreted up through the present day. This supports the Folger’s institutional mission: to understand, appreciate, and contextualize Shakespeare's writings, and to preserve and provide access to our collections, both now and in the future. As an independent research library, we seek to listen to and anticipate diverse research audiences who will use our collection in expected and unexpected ways now and in the future. This policy serves as a foundation for equitable collection development and is supported through work with a wide range of partners to build the collection in a responsible, inclusive, and anti-racist way. We seek to address the Eurocentric legacy of our current collection strengths by actively collecting and making available materials that represent non-hegemonic voices and narratives. While we have multiple curators responsible for different parts of the collection, we view the collection as a cohesive unit with many points of intersection, and our decision-making process is therefore collective.  

Collection Overview

The early modern collection at the Folger Shakespeare Library focuses on materials primarily originating in Europe from the early 16th century through the beginning of the 18th century.  The Folger collection from the 18th century to the present includes materials related to the history of theatrical performance and Shakespeare editing, both analog and digital, in all languages. It includes printed and handwritten items, archival collections, prints (both single sheet and in printed books), photographs, artwork, film and moving image recordings, ephemera, costumes, realia, and digital objects.

Collecting Rationale and Priorities

We seek materials that:

  • Expand on our strengths and enrich and build holdings in areas of emerging strengths related to historically marginalized or under-documented people, including those illuminating non-elite voices and circumstances related to race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, ability, and non-Western European identities.
  • Provide meaningful opportunities for diverse communities to engage with our collection in service to the Folger’s greater missions of engagement, learning, and enjoyment.

With these overall goals in mind, we collect broadly within the following areas:

Early printed books and single sheet prints

We prioritize printed works with the following attributes, in addition to the ones stated above:

  • Works that build on existing strengths, including the works of William Shakespeare; the works of other early modern British and Continental playwrights, and materials related to early modern theatrical history; almanacs; writing manuals; women’s writing; courtesy and conduct books; cookbooks; trade and commerce; travel and navigational documents; scientific and medicinal writing; architecture and technology; dictionaries and phrase books; festival books; British and continental political and religious pamphlets; the Reformation and other religious topics.
  • Works which we do not currently own.
  • Works with specific features such as manuscript annotations, ownership marks, or other evidence of early use; evidence of the early book trade; and/or other evidence of personalization, such as items bound together by previous owners and booksellers.
  • Works with original or near contemporary bindings.
  • Works that are especially scarce or otherwise not widely available.
  • Variants with substantive differences.
  • Works written by, about or depicting people of non-European descent, enslaved people, women, laborers, artisans. Documents that implicitly reflect the hidden and stolen labor, knowledge, and skills of enslaved and free people of African descent.

Early modern manuscripts

We focus on manuscripts created in, or related to, the early modern British-Atlantic world, with highest priority given to manuscripts falling into one or more of the following categories:

  • Manuscripts that build on existing strengths, including dramatic and theatre-related manuscripts, poetry, family correspondence and papers, letter books and individual letters, copybooks for learning to write, commonplace books, miscellanies, culinary and medicinal recipe books, armorials and other heraldic manuscripts, inventories, account books, diaries and autobiographical writings, Recusant writings, sermons, polemical treatises, petitions, depositions, wills, newsletters, and scribal publications.
  • Manuscripts created by or about people of non-European descent, enslaved people, indentured servants, women, laborers, artisans; manuscripts reflecting a wide range of literacies and numeracies; manuscripts which document the names or implicitly reflect the hidden and stolen labor, knowledge, and skills of enslaved and free people of African descent.
  • Hybrid and multimedia manuscripts that include print and/or graphic material, such as printed blank forms and heavily annotated or interleaved printed books.

Shakespeare and Performance

We focus on material related to engagement with, and dissemination, publication, performance, reading, creative interpretation, and enjoyment of Shakespeare’s works globally and over time. We prioritize material that falls into one or more of the following categories:

  • Shakespeare-related promptbooks, editions, translations, adaptations, screenplays, playbills, posters, photographs, films, recordings, criticism, and correspondence, in all languages.
  • 18th to 21st century archives, documents, and correspondence of actors, directors, playwrights, designers, or theaters where Shakespeare and his works have constituted a significant commitment or influence.
  • Shakespeare ephemera related to Shakespeare festivals, clubs, and celebratory events, calendars, advertisements.
  • Juvenile drama prints, toys & games, comics & graphic novels.
  • Drawings, and other works of art with a focus on Shakespeare.
  • Artists’ books

We will consider costumes, props, and other objects based on their capacity to complement existing books, manuscripts, and artwork in the collection, and our ability to safely house and maintain them. We do not actively collect paintings (however, we will consider paintings connected to the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery), recent scholarly and editorial papers, ceramic figurines, and furniture. We do not commission new artwork or artists’ books.

Digital Materials

The Folger collects born-digital materials that fit into the subject scope described in this policy, although there may be technological limitations on the size and formats we can preserve. (See point 7 in the Ethical Values section, below.) Our current digital collection of web based Shakespeareana is viewable here.

Curatorial Team

Caroline Duroselle-Melish, Curator of Early Modern Books and Prints

Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts

With special thanks to Beth DeBold, the Folger’s former Assistant Curator of Collections, our colleagues in the Folger Collections Division, Smith College Libraries, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the American Antiquarian Society, the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, and the Newberry Library for their time, consideration, and feedback.

Works Consulted

Association of College and Research Libraries.  “ACRL Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians.”  Chicago: ACRL, 2020.

Fuentes, Marisa J. Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

Hall, Kim F. “I can’t love this the way you want me to: Archival blackness.” Postmedieval 11, 2020.

"When White Libraries Happen to Black Collections," Panel Discussion. Cornell University Libraries, October 2020.

Institutional Policies

Harry Ransom Center. “Collection Development Policy.” Rev. 2019. Accessed August 2021.

Linda Hall Library. “Donating Materials to the Collections.” Accessed August 2021.

Smith College Libraries. “Collection Development Strategy.” Accessed August 2021.

University of California, Los Angeles. “What We Collect: Manuscripts, Rare Books and Print Culture: History of Printing and Publishing.” Accessed August 2021.

University of Illinois. “Collection Policies.” Accessed August 2021.

Follow this link to read more about the collecting history of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Collection history and background

See the following articles to explore the scope of the Folger's collection strengths.

Art collection development
Continental collection development
Early modern English collection development
Manuscript collection development
Shakespeare collection development