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In Memoriam
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Elizabeth Walsh

Posted By RSA, Monday, November 6, 2017

Elizabeth Walsh
1 January 1953—22 September 2017

Many scholars from the US and abroad who have done research at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, will remember fondly Elizabeth Walsh—known as “Betsy”—who was Head of Reader Services and worked at the Folger for forty-three years. Betsy passed away in September after a brief and heroic struggle with cancer.

As a native Washingtonian whose family lived and worked east of the capitol, Betsy spent much of her life in and around the Folger. She visited on high school trips to see student matinees, and in the summer of 1974 before her senior year as an English major at Trinity College, she worked as a circulation page. She continued working at the Folger part-time while earning a master’s in library science at the University of Maryland, and in 1986 she became Head of Reader Services.

Betsy’s knowledge of the Folger’s collections was broad and deep, enabling her to point many scholars in the direction they needed to go, often before they knew it themselves. She knew all the obscure corners of the collection, the old files, and the uncatalogued materials, and she shared this knowledge freely and gracefully with staff and readers. Betsy was never hierarchal or judgmental about giving out information. The woman who called because she wanted to name her cats after the witches in Macbeth received the same kind attention as a scholar in the reading room who needed to find early newsbooks or the high school teacher who was using primary source material for the first time. Betsy’s kindness meant that she was often the recipient of long disquisitions by researchers on their book topics or even on various theories about the Shakespeare authorship question. She would listen patiently and never let her good humor slip.

Betsy generously gave many tours, delighting in choosing just the right items from the collection that would interest visiting dignitaries, groups of actors, high school students, or readers and their families. She also worked on a number of exhibitions at the Folger; she co-curated Cathedral: Faith in Stone (1990), Yesterday’s News: Seventeenth-Century English Broadsides and Newsbooks (1995), and Voices for Tolerance in an Age of Persecution (2004). She was also a consultant on Breaking News: Renaissance Journalism and the Birth of the Newspaper (2008) and Open City: London 1500–1700 (2012).

Betsy’s longtime knowledge of Washington, DC, also made her an amazing resource for anyone who needed information on how to obtain special parking permits, or the best way to get onto I-95 from the Folger. Many readers learned their way around from Betsy; she referred them to local stores, or to dentists or clinics when they had a medical emergency. Betsy always cared about the whole person no matter what their academic degree or place of origin.            

Most of all, it was Betsy who, over the years, created the very special atmosphere felt by all those who came to use the Folger. She was warm and welcoming, and instilled those values into every generation of reading room staff, so that readers have felt they truly had a home in the Folger. When things were tough in their personal worlds, they knew they had another place to come. One scholar wrote in her book, “My home away from home has been the Folger Shakespeare Library,” as she acknowledged Betsy and the reading room staff in furthering her research. Betsy Walsh will be missed by many Folger readers and visitors, but her influence on generations of scholars endures as a tangible part of her memory.

Georgianna Ziegler
Associate Librarian and Head of Reference Emerita
Folger Shakespeare Library

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Richard Waugaman says...
Posted Tuesday, November 14, 2017
I join all those who mourn Betsy's passing. During the 14 years I have been a reader, she was unfailingly helpful and pleasant. She probably knew I am an Oxfordian, but that didn't seem to make the least difference in her friendly attitude. All the staff at the Folger are amazingly generous with their time and expertise, but Betsy will be impossible to replace.
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