A Letter from America XXVI: A Visit to the American Antiquarian Society (July)

From the Rare Book Review

A few issues ago I mentioned the decision of the American Antiquarian Society to keep its name despite the pressures of modern marketing (how about Rare Antiquarian Society? American Rare Society?). This prompted several of my readers to ask me just what that library (hereafter called AAS) did, anyway. Thank you, I’m glad you asked.

First, AAS is one of that hardy breed known as independent research libraries, meaning that its primary mission is supporting advanced research while not being affiliated with a college or university. Its peers in the U.S. are generally seen as the Huntington in California , the Newberry in Chicago, the Morgan in New York , and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington . In an era that has seen the failure of many smaller independent libraries because of the skyrocketing costs of keeping the doors open, these institutions have all grown and prospered. Unlike the other four, AAS has not been able to draw on a large metropolitan area or the social cachet of a famous name for its support. This is because AAS is still in Worcester , Mass. , where it was founded by the patriot printer Isaiah Thomas in 1812. Worcester has been a loyal in its support of AAS, but the city is not on many people’s roadmap for their next trip. The Society has been able to build a national constituency solely on the quality of its performance. It is worthy of the attention of everyone who cares about American history.

AAS is most often identified with early American imprints. It has the largest single holding of works printed in the present-day United States before 1801, and if accurate censuses existed which allowed a count, probably the largest before 1821. It has also been the bibliographical leader in the field, as the sponsor institution of the North American Imprints Project, building the state-of-the-art database for extant pre-1801 imprints. This primacy extends to early American newspapers as well; AAS has the largest holding up to 1876, its cut-off date for collecting, and its commitment to keeping the originals has made it a safe haven for newspaper preservation when many other institutions are disposing of theirs. At the same time the Society has been at the forefront of technological projects in these fields, with a digital version of pre-1801 American imprint texts now available through Readex and further plans in the works.  

The AAS collections hardly end with these imprints; it holds one of the largest libraries for American history to 1876 anywhere in the country. The core policy of the Society has always been to collect, preserve, and make available the printed materials of the American colonies and the United States in the largest sense, including graphics and the book arts. These include what still survives intact of the Mather Family Library on through remarkable collections in various genres; bindings, cookbooks, book auction catalogues, local histories, genealogy, directories, early transportation, children’s books, hymnals, sheet music, trade catalogues…you name it. Besides these, the graphic arts have an equally rich collection with everything from birds-eye views to engraved watch papers. I am leaving lots out (but go take a look at www.americanantiquarian.org).

As many satisfied users will tell you, though, AAS is as much about the people as the collections. While the hard stuff provides the necessary lure, it is the devoted and incredibly knowledgeable staff which really sets AAS apart. I have persuaded a number of initially skeptical academics, who thought from the name that it was some kind of fusty institution, to give Worcester a chance. Once they go, they’re hooked. I do not think any American library can boast as many warm and glowing tributes in prefaces as AAS. Over the last thirty years I have sat in a lot of reading rooms, and it is without peer in the level of service consistently delivered to the users. You don’t have to be Ph.D. either; old-fashioned genealogists are welcome, too.

Collectors, as well, will find the door wide open. There is a long and happy symbiosis between private collectors and AAS. Many of them have found help with research questions, and some have eventually left their collections here. Two notable examples are the Donald MacKay Frost collection of Western Americana , one of the best in the classic Wagner-Camp era, and the Michael Papantonio collection of American bindings, formed by the late, great proprietor of Seven Gables Book Store. So even if you don’t plan to summer in Worcester , this is a three star establishment in the Michelin system, worth a trip to see. Plan your research trip today!

– William S. Reese