Wherever I am, a library is my home

ONE of my car accessories is a dead giveaway. My license plate cover reads “LIBRARIES ARE ESSENTIAL––I LOVE MY LIBRARY.”

Stephen Grant speaking in Folger Shakespeare Library with Henry Folger looking over his shoulder, Shakespeare’s birthday 2014. 

As children, after school, we scampered past the duck pond up the hill to the Wellesley Free Library in eastern Massachusetts, paused to swing open a large heavy door, and entered a cavernous turreted building built of granite and red sandstone. We were warmly welcomed by the Children’s Librarian. The heavily powdered Miss Sturgis, in hushed tones, with an engaging lisp, always had suggestions for our next passionate reading adventure.

I could not have guessed then that over a half-century later I would receive a fellowship from the Folger Shakespeare Library to begin research on writing the biography of a Brooklyn couple who founded said library on Capitol Hill. I am speaking of the white marble neo-classical greco-deco structure catty-cornered from the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, the Folger Shakespeare Library, which contains the largest collection of Shakespeare in the world. Although the private research library was dedicated in 1932, surprisingly no one had written a biography of its founders.

Celebrating the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Johns Hopkins in 2014 published COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE: THE STORY OF HENRY AND EMILY FOLGER. 2016 marked the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. During this three-year Shakespeare frenzy, I gave seventy book talks on the reclusive Folger couple. As many as fourteen or 20% of these were in libraries.

Besides several talks (one pictured here on Shakespeare’s birthday) in the Folger Shakespeare Library, I spoke across the street from the Folger at the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book. I drove to Henry’s alma mater, Amherst College, and Emily’s, Vassar College, plus to their vacation spots, Glen Cove, Long Island and The Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, Virginia to speak. Major urban centers hosted Folger lectures at the New York Society Library, and at San Diego and San Francisco Public Libraries. An Annual Authors Night at the Public Library in East Hampton, NY was covered in glitz. 

El Salvador book cover. The book was conceptualized, researched, developed, designed, and printed in El Salvador, 1999.

My neighborhood Public Library of Arlington, VA invited me to speak to a local crowd. A Shakespearean actor read the entire text of COLLECTING SHAKESPEARE, made available on special listening devices from National Library Service for the blind and physically handicapped.

In between Wellesley and Washington, I did not neglect libraries. Living in San Salvador, El Salvador for four years, I produced a bilingual book inspired by my passion for collecting vintage picture postcards, and sent a copy (see image of book cover) to 70 libraries in El Salvador. The book reproduced 200 Salvadoran picture postcards from the period 1900–1950. Typical scenes include early public buildings, streets and squares in the capital, ports and markets, hotels and lakes, and groups of Indians. I explain how one builds a collection and the methodology I used to investigate Salvadoran history to make the old postcards come alive. Early Salvadoran Postcards is one of the first extensive studies published on the old postcards of a Latin American country.


Stephen H. Grant is a senior fellow at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and author of Peter Strickland: New London Shipmaster, Boston Merchant, First Consul to Senegal and Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger.