Amherst Magazine

The Smell Makes You Feel Smarter

Coat worn by Edwin Booth as Richard III

By Emily Gold Boutilier

An important part of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s mission is to spread an appreciation for Shakespeare far and wide, but access to the library’s rare books and artifacts is necessarily restricted to senior scholars. There is one exception to that rule: each year since 1996, Amherst has sent a select group of two or three students to Washington, D.C., during the January Interterm to stay in the Folger guest house for two weeks and to conduct research in the Old Reading Room, which is open to the general public only on Shakespeare’s birthday.

Sarah Courtney ’06, a women’s and gender studies major, was one of these students during her senior year. As part of her thesis on early children’s literature, she studied chapbooks, one of the earliest forms of mass-produced literature. Chapbooks are very small, and the first ones date back to the 16th century.

In the Reading Room, Folger employees delivered the diminutive tomes to Courtney and set them up on foam blocks to minimize wear. The quiet room, with a high arched ceiling, hardwood shelves and a balcony that goes all the way around, “puts you in the mind of the period you are studying,” says Courtney, now a graduate student in linguistics at Cornell. At one end of the room is an enormous stained glass window that depicts the “seven ages of man” as described in a passage from As You Like It. As part of the fellowship, Amherst students also take part in a traditional afternoon tea served daily to visiting scholars and staff.

Gregg McHugh ’96, now a corporate lawyer in Houston, Tex., was part of the first group of Amherst students to spend Interterm at the Folger. He arrived 11 years ago to read for his thesis on John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. McHugh remembers the distinct smell of the reading room—“It smells of scholarship,” he says—and the effect it had on the brain. “It’s like when you go through the produce section of a particularly good store: you just feel healthier even if you are not taking in any nutrients,” McHugh says. “It’s the same way when you walk into the Folger. The smell makes you feel smarter.”

As McHugh and Courtney demonstrate, a specific interest in Shakespeare isn’t a prerequisite for study at the Folger; the library’s collections support in-depth research into the early modern period in the West. To Courtney, the opportunity to do research in such a rarified preserve is “one of those weird, quirky things about Amherst” that made her undergraduate years so special.

Natasha Staller, professor of art and art history, chairs the Folger Fellowships Committee. She describes the fellowships as a “tremendous gift” to students, allowing them “blissful, extended time” to study primary sources and to work with an exceptionally knowledgeable staff. “When students work at the Folger,” she says, “they are able to take their work and their understanding to a dramatically deeper level. In addition to the raw joy and thrill of prospecting for gold (which serendipitous research always seems like to me), they have a chance to make real discoveries.”