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Where It All Began - A Visit to the American Antiquarian Society

By Mike Stillman

“I want every thing and collect every thing.” That may sound like a quote from your four-year old, but in reality it comes from Christopher Columbus Baldwin, third librarian of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS). It succinctly describes the Society’s view of collecting. Within its field, printed Americana through 1876, the AAS literally wants a copy of everything. What is truly amazing is just how close the Society has come to pulling this ambition off. Today the Society holds two-thirds of all known material printed from what is now the United States from 1640’s “Bay Psalm Book” (the first piece printed in America) through 1821. It also holds one of the world’s largest collections of printed Americana from 1821-1876. There is no other collection of early printed Americana anywhere that compares with this remarkable collection.

So how did this unique collection end up in the somewhat obscure city of Worcester, Massachusetts? That goes back to the Society’s founder, Isaiah Thomas. Thomas was a Boston printer who began to learn his trade at an early age. We’re not kidding when we say “early age.” Thomas’ father abandoned the family, and young Isaiah was sent off to set type at the age of six, before he could even read. Eventually, he grew up, bought his own press, and went on to be one of his generation’s most successful printers.

In 1775, as relations became strained between the colonists and the British, Thomas moved his press to the security of Worcester, just three days before the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Some believe he may have blazed Paul Revere’s trail, though probably not quite as quickly if he was carrying his printing press behind. In Worcester, he became a successful printer, publisher, bookseller, and, in time, an obsessive collector. Thomas had the foresight to understand the value of preserving the material of our history even before it became history. He purchased everything from newspapers printed during the Revolution to contemporary printed music.

Finally, in 1812, Thomas got together with a few others who shared his passion for preserving history and the American Antiquarian Society was born. He contributed both his library and a substantial sum of money to start the venture. With war against the British once again looming, it was decided that the collection would stay in Worcester, safely inland from the British fleet.

The rest, as they say, is history. Collections were expanded throughout the nineteenth century. A second building was constructed to replace the original, and in 1910, the Society’s third, and current, home was completed. At that time, the AAS abandoned its archaeological collections to focus strictly on print. In its earlier years, the Society had collected almost anything related to America, but this became too enormous a task for an organization of the AAS’ size. Out went the mummy and the plaster casts of European statues, sent to institutions where they fit the collections. Today, almost two hundred years after its founding and three expansions of the 1910 building later, the AAS holds the world’s greatest collection of pre-1877 printed Americana. The AAS collection consists of over three million pieces and continues to grow. It fills up twenty miles of shelves. And, it remains safely out of reach of the British fleet.

Where It All Began - A Visit to the American Antiquarian Society

Antiquarian Hall

If you’re ever anywhere near Worcester, Mass., you must visit “Antiquarian Hall,” home of the AAS. Anyone with a love for America’s books, or her history as seen through printed works, cannot help but be in awe. This is Gettysburg to the Civil War collector, Mount Vernon to those who follow Washington. It’s all here, or at least almost all. Free tours are given every Wednesday at 2:00. Just show up. Reservations aren’t required.

While most of us associate libraries with books, maybe a few magazines, the AAS’ collection goes far beyond the bounds of a typical library. There is a large collection of almanacs and yearbooks. There are newspapers, possibly the best collection of 18th and 19th century American newspapers in existence. There is a collection of 70,000 pieces of sheet music. The AAS has used this collection to hold concerts featuring music that probably hasn’t been heard in almost two centuries. There are broadsides, single sheet items like posters. There are cookbooks and children’s stories. That’s not all. Now we get really ephemeral. There are maps, political cartoons, railroad tickets, currency, games, stock certificates, menus, even valentines. They have account books from various businesses, trade cards, and clipper ship cards worth as much as $5,000. If you’re not familiar with clipper ship cards, they are notices of voyages, comparable to advertisements for cruise lines today, and some of the color work on these cards is stunning for their era. If it was printed in America before 1877, the AAS has it, or if it doesn’t, it’s looking for it.

The material is packed away in stacks in various wings of the building. Newspapers are housed in stacks five stories high, separated by glass floors. Shelves in rolling stacks house much of the unusual material. The shelving rolls so that it can be packed tightly together, creating more storage room, with shelves then rolled out for access. Latest techniques in fireproofing are present. Much of the material is subject to strict climate controls. Librarians move about the stacks bundled in sweaters. Ellen Dunlap, president of the AAS, explains that this material is kept at 58 degrees and 35% humidity: the colder and dryer the better it is for long-term preservation of paper. Choosing the correct settings, Ms. Dunlap points out, is a balancing between what is needed for preservation, financial considerations, and what the staff can tolerate. Additionally, since this material is not just salted away, but actively used, the difference between conditions in the “vault” and the reading room can’t be too extreme. 58 is not too great a shock when material is moved to the 68 degree reading room. As Ms. Dunlap notes, “you don’t want books to “frost up” when moved.

The issue of moving the material to the reading room points out the truly amazing feature of this library: its collections are open to anyone conducting serious research. What’s more, it’s all free of charge. The AAS may have the greatest museum of printed Americana in the world, but it’s no museum. It is a living library. Sure, there are a few more precautions than at your local library. After all, much of this material is irreplaceable, and if not priceless, it is certainly very costly. Still, the material is available for research. You’ll need to fill out a form explaining your project and show two forms of identification. Obviously visitors can’t roam around the stacks; librarians will bring material to you. But, you will find the staff friendly, helpful and knowledgeable. Whether a student, teacher, or just an amateur historian, you will be welcomed by the keepers of this castle.

Where It All Began - A Visit to the American Antiquarian Society

What type of research is conducted? Not all research at the AAS is strictly academic or part of someone’s term paper. Ellen Dunlap cites an example of a gentleman who had discovered the diary of a 19th century Vermont farmer. The farmer had kept a record of every book he read, sermon or lecture he attended. Who says Vermonters aren’t fun? The researcher wanted to recreate that life, to experience as much of what life was like for the farmer as he could. This meant reading the same books and lectures the farmer had read or heard. Where can you not only find these old texts, but actually be allowed to read them? Welcome to the AAS.

Meet the President

Now that we’ve mentioned Ellen Dunlap, it’s time for a more formal introduction. She’ll be the first to tell you that she’s part of a team of dedicated and exceptional people. Nevertheless, she’s an outstanding spokesperson for the AAS, and this writer was privileged to have Ms. Dunlap as tour guide during a recent visit to Antiquarian Hall.

Ms. Dunlap has served the AAS as president since 1992. Her unplanned track to the AAS goes back to the early 1970’s, when, as a student at the University of Texas, she took a course in the history of aviation. As she explains it, she had no interest in history nor aviation. It was just that she had a hole to fill in her schedule, and this course took place at a convenient time in a convenient location. At the time, UT (University of Texas) was amassing a collection on aviation, and one of the course requirements was that students “volunteer” to sort magazines. That was the start of a career.

She continued to work on the aviation project, even as she went to library school. When she graduated, Ms. Dunlap got a job as a research librarian, helping people use the collections. The job brought her into the world of collectors, dealers and archivists. In 1983, she was asked to become director of the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia. Ms. Dunlap explains that Rosenbach was everything UT wasn’t. UT was vast; Rosenbach was a house museum, a “curious mix” of items collected by the Rosenbach brothers, dealers in rare books and assorted items, during the first half of the 20th century. Ms. Dunlap served as their director for nine years, all the while putting together a community of people interested in rare books.

In 1992, Ellen Dunlap was asked to head the AAS. “I say asked because I really wasn’t very qualified on paper,” she says. “Everyone assumed the job would go to someone more knowledgeable with imprints, but the search committee evidently thought differently.” Evidently what they had in mind was expanding the reach of the Antiquarian Society, and this is Ms. Dunlap’s forte. Clearly the Society wants everyone to be aware of its collections and its programs, and its president is making sure that this mission is accomplished.

One activity of the AAS of which Ms. Dunlap is particularly proud is the fellowship program. Many fellows will stay for a few weeks while they conduct their projects, but others may stay as long as a year. Their research can be anything pertaining to the Society’s collections. Fellows are encouraged to work with each other if their research overlaps, and the AAS’ staff willingly becomes involved in the process. As Ms. Dunlap points out, some libraries can be “ungenerous” with help. “Here the staff prides itself in getting you the answers to your questions, sometimes even before you ask. Nobody leaves here without commenting on the helpfulness of the staff and the support of the community.”

Where It All Began - A Visit to the American Antiquarian Society

Many of the books and papers written by the fellows are now part of the collections. That brings us to a side point. Not only does the Society hold an enormous amount of the pre-1877 material in existence, it also possesses many works about the material of this era. Newer books about the subjects of the AAS’ collections are also held at Antiquarian Hall. This includes 3,250 volumes of bibliographic material available in the Hall’s reading room.

The Society also sponsors numerous other educational programs. It publishes books, offers lectures and seminars, and even has a program geared toward area schools. An actor recreates the personage of founder Isaiah Thomas and visits schools to tell his story and that of the founding of the nation.

Asked about the AAS’ mission, Ms. Dunlap speaks of two, preserving the nation’s early printed history, and making it available for research. However, as important as the research is, there’s no question that the first mission is preservation. This is why the AAS is focused on having originals of everything, not electronic or photo copies. “The AAS will always retain the physical connection,” she says. “People give us material that has been scanned elsewhere. Others don’t need to have the originals. This is our role. In a world where everyone has seen a copy, one place should have the originals.”

She goes on to say “What amazes me is it was all thought up by one person. We do exactly what Isaiah Thomas told us in 1812 and for the same reason. It’s his passion for collecting one piece of everything that was available. He saw the nation created by the power of the press. He felt it was his obligation to preserve this. I find that very inspiring.”

To understand the “passion for collecting one piece of everything,” you need to see each piece as part of a puzzle, rather than stand alone documents, as amazing as many of the individual pieces are. For example, the ledgers of an individual business are not very exciting by themselves, but if you have them from many businesses, spread over a range of time, you can see business evolve and grow. That’s where you begin to see a picture of how America grew during her early years. As Ellen Dunlap explains, “What surprised me most is not ‘oh my God, look at this book.’ Here it’s the comprehensive nature that we have everything. Individual items are not necessarily interesting, but the entire collection gives you the picture of how everything interacts.” And this is what makes Antiquarian Hall such an extraordinary place for research. You can truly follow the evolution of any aspect of America’s early history because, more than anywhere else, the AAS comes closest to having everything.

So why do the collections stop with 1876? Ms. Dunlap cites several reasons for this cut off. The primary reason is that the AAS’ mission is to be comprehensive in what it collects, but this requires setting some limits. Otherwise, the project becomes unmanageable. 1876 was selected as it marks the end of a significant era, Reconstruction, and also is the nation’s centennial. Additionally, it’s the time where the U.S. copyright office begins requiring that copies of all books be sent there, giving the government the opportunity to amass the best collection of all U.S. publications going forward, and at no cost. Finally, Ms. Dunlap noted that printing takes off astronomically in this era, making comprehensive collecting of printed Americana an overwhelming task for a private institution like the Society. However, in some areas, like Alaska, or even the West in general, the AAS collections do continue to a later date because there was very little material printed before 1877. And, as noted before, the AAS does collect later printed material about the earlier items that form the basis of their collections.

Where It All Began - A Visit to the American Antiquarian Society

The Website

Not everyone will get to conduct research at Antiquarian Hall, nor even have a chance to visit. Still, a virtual tour is open to everyone, as the AAS has one of the more comprehensive websites you will find. Joanne Chaison, Research Librarian, provided us with our virtual tour. Among the many features of the website are online exhibits from the AAS collections, a survey of new acquisitions, listings of publications from the Society and of publications and films based on research at the AAS, a description of the fellowship program, and an online store. However, Ms. Chaison focuses on two main areas of the website.

The first is the online enhanced version of the Society’s guidebook, “Under Its Generous Dome.” One need only look straight up from anywhere in the reading room to understand from where the title was drawn. The “generous” comes from the Society’s openness in sharing its resources. This guide will tell you almost everything about the Society, its history, cataloging, programs, and all about its collections. It’s worth a look if you’re at all interested in seeing what an extraordinary collection of early printed Americana looks like.

The second focus of the website is its online catalog. This is a feature no book collector should miss. Those of you familiar with the Americana Exchange’s bibliographic database will particularly appreciate this feature. Rather than the search of bibliographies and various collector, dealer or auction catalogs provided by this site, the AAS provides a search into its own catalog. And, since the AAS collections include two-thirds of all pre-1821 Americana, and vast quantities of material from 1821-1876, the listings are extensive.

The online catalog is designed to be searchable in many different ways. You won’t be limited to the old author or title search of a card catalog. You can search through numerous other fields, such as names, subjects, year of publication, name of printer, and many more.

Naturally, the search will show you what’s available in the AAS library with information about their copy. However, the descriptions of the AAS’ copies can be very helpful in understanding copies in your own collection, or finding out more about titles you wish to collect. Of course, if you have printed material prior to 1877 that does not show up in the AAS catalog, you may have something interesting. If it predates 1821 and the AAS doesn’t have it, it’s probably very interesting. The Society would undoubtedly like to hear about it.

To visit the American Antiquarian Society website, go to

Where It All Began - A Visit to the American Antiquarian Society

Before we move on, we’ll add a comment from Ms. Chaison, whose years at the AAS predate the online era. “I’ve been here 22 years,” she explains, “and never saw the same topic researched twice.” That’s a testament to the volume of material available for research. She points to a recent resurgence of interest in the “racy” newspapers of 1830-1850 as an example of how much is available. These were papers written by men for young men going to the city. This material had been sitting on the library’s shelves for years with little interest. Suddenly, urban history becomes a “hot” area, and it turns out the AAS has an “unparalleled” collection. As Ms. Chaison points out, “there are lots of things still to be discovered here.”

Something Old, Something New – An Outlook to the Future

What’s in store for the future? Don’t expect any radical changes. That would not be in keeping with the Society’s mission of preservation. What you can expect is that the collections will continue to grow, and the services to improve. AAS President Ellen Dunlap promises that those services will “keep getting better.”

The AAS currently is operating on a five-year plan. There are subcommittees working on various issues, such as acquisitions, cataloging, and academic and public relations. “We’re looking at everything to make things better,” says Ms. Dunlap, “but we’re not taking radical steps. We will always be a place where our primary goal is collecting and making available original material.”

The AAS is constantly talking with other institutions to find more ways of making their collections available. Ms. Dunlap points to newspapers in particular, as these require a lot of space and most libraries do not deal with them other than perhaps recent issues. At this time, the Society is involved in a major project, digitizing all of the material in their collection that appears in Charles Evans’ bibliography American Bibliography, along with Roger Bristol’s supplement to Evans. This covers the complete text for over 36,000 items from 17th and 18th century America, including 2.4 million images. [Editor’s Note: The Evan’s bibliography itself is one of the items contained in the Americana Exchange's bibliographical database.]

Digital Evans will be online, allowing institutions to subscribe from anywhere in the world. Access to the database will be available to those who are members of a subscribing institution. However, it is hoped that another year or two down the line, once the database has been rolled out to subscribing institutions, short term subscriptions will be made available to individuals, so that anyone can access the database from their own computers regardless of whether they have a relationship with an institutional subscriber.

This concludes our visit to the American Antiquarian Society. However, you’re invited to continue learning more at the AAS

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