An interview with Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library

Michael Witmore, 44, an award-winning Shakespearean scholar and author, became director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in July. He is a former English professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Wisconsin. Eager to bring the early modern period of literature into the 21st century, Witmore is a pioneer in the digital analysis of Shakespeare’s texts.

(Courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Library) - Michael Witmore, the new director at Folger Library.

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Q: What has impressed you in the time you have been here?

A: I am so deeply impressed with the depth of the staff. There is a level of knowledge and passion that is so unique. I was thrilled to take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to run an institution that is at the top of its game.

Q: How do you plan to transfer more of that knowledge to the public?

A: Access takes many forms. It can be hands to paper. It can be photographs. It can be showing the relevance of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. From their words have come many of our public speeches. They are part of our vocabulary. When we can take work like the King James Bible and say, ‘This is what you can learn,’ it is essential to have a group of people who do know them in detail.

Q: How can you raise the visibility of the Folger, which can get lost in a city of museums and research centers?

A: We are two blocks from the Capitol. Thousands visit the Capitol. We need to be a destination. We are an institution that specializes in the written and spoken word. We need to be word central. We have materials the scholars use to study the past and answer questions about today. No, I wouldn’t use the word “museum” because the one best museum in my ideal world is the language we speak.

Q: But you do have a built-in audience.

A: I read that 50 million children under college age read Shakespeare. There is no bigger community that is bound by a single text. And we have 1 million people who visit our online curriculum.

Q: Is it hard to stay away from the collections and their rare materials to do the administrative work this job requires?

A: I haven’t stayed away. My job is to learn how the institution works and how to move it forward. I do have keys to the collections, where we have the third-largest collection of English words in the world. I found out we have manuscript pages from George Eliot. And we have the deed to the Shakespeare house in New Place. I used to spend my spare time learning statistics. Now I am studying Greek and playing music.

Q: If someone has two hours to spend at the Folger, what should they do?

A: Come to a performance at the Folger theater, and go into the exhibit hall and see a first volume. Then they will get both sides — the things the library holds and the things the library brings to life.

 
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