The venerable Folger Shakespeare Library stands squarely in a city of monuments, situated among illustrious neighbors on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Capitol dome dominates the view to the west, and the Library of Congress and Supreme Court building round out the neighborhood.
Even among this eminent company, the Folger shines with its own history and purpose. Dedicated in 1932, it houses books, writings, art, and countless other items that date back to the beginning of printing, through the English Renaissance, and into the early modern period of the late 18th century. Its collection is vast, and at its center is the study of the work and times of William Shakespeare.
The Tudor interior of the building, featuring a Great Hall and two ornate reading rooms, welcomes visitors from around the world and offers a quiet atmosphere that inspires scholarly undertakings. Below ground, vaults and shelves that extend the length of a city block house works that date from the 1400s, including the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare’s First Folios, a volume compiled in 1623 that contains almost all of his plays, half of which had never been printed before.
This monument to antiquity is staffed by a team of professionals whose mission is anything but antique. Among them is Eric Johnson, MA ’05, the Folger’s first director of digital access. Charged with management of the Folger’s diverse digital programs, Johnson weds technology with the humanities to bring the abundance of these collections to new audiences online. Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in English—an educational background one might conclude is a direct and expected link to a library career. But as the Folger is no ordinary library, Johnson’s path to it was no conventional journey.
Johnson graduated from James Madison University with a degree in history and put his college media experience and writing skills to work with the Arlington Catholic Herald. It was with the Herald, in the mid-1990s, that he first explored the idea of bringing digital technology and writing together.
“I’d always messed around with computers because my dad worked with computers,” he says. “I saw that the web was emerging and I thought [the Herald] should have a website.” He proposed the idea to his editor, offered to build the site himself, and soon found that technology had become a significant part of his job.
Johnson continued to build his inventory of technical skills by operating websites for a trade association, and later for the Washington Times and United Press International. He moved to a position with the U.S. Department of State, working on internal and external content-driven websites, and managed project teams for several web development firms. While furthering his career, Johnson was also furthering his education, earning a master’s degree in English from George Mason in 2005.
As part of his master’s thesis project, Johnson developed Open Source Shakespeare, a free, online database that allows users to search digital versions of the author’s complete works. He began work on the site while he was stationed in Kuwait with the U.S. Marine Reserve in summer 2003, after being attached to an infantry unit in Iraq. Back in the United States, he continued to build it while riding the Washington, D.C., Metrorail to and from his work as a web developer. Since its release in 2004, the site has received more than 46 million page views, and remains one of the most popular Shakespeare sites on the web.
Johnson’s extensive web experience and his interest in Shakespeare came together when he learned from a source at the Folger that the library was creating the director of digital access position. During his interview for the job, a library director told Johnson that he’d used Open Source Shakespeare as a resource in writing his most recent book. Johnson has served as the library’s director of digital access since 2013.
He has found it to be a satisfying balance of his web-related, organizational, and intellectual interests. “I was very grateful that I was able to find a job that allows me to use my managerial and leadership skills along with participating in the intellectual life of the organization,” he says. “And now I get to interact with all kinds of people who are interested in Shakespeare and the early modern era.”
Johnson’s work makes the treasures of the Folger accessible to all of the library’s audiences: researchers, Shakespeare enthusiasts, theater-goers, K-12 students and teachers, and university instructors. He enjoys the challenge of creating technical structures that support and frame such important subject matter.
The challenge is in finding the balance in creating the framework that makes the content easily accessible. “If you focus too much on the grist, the substance,” he explains, “you’re going to end up with something that’s technically weak, probably something that is not very well designed, won’t attract an audience, and will probably collapse over a number of years because it wasn’t well designed. And the world will pass it by.”
This article originally appeared in the 2016 edition of Cornerstone.
July 11, 2016