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THE AMERICAN ANTIQUARIAN SOCIETY (AAS), founded in 1812, is the nation's oldest historical organization. Its library of books, serials, manuscripts, and graphic arts extends from the colonial period through the late nineteenth century. Generations of scholars, graduate students, bibliographers, and independent researchers have studied at the library, "under its generous dome." This article explores elements of the institution's history, the evolution of its collections, and the relationship between its staff and readers that make it a leading humanities research center. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the collections, carefully and aggressively acquired for two centuries, are extraordinarily supportive for new trends in research. Comments offered by several recent scholars working in a variety of fresh historical, literary, and interdisciplinary projects illustrate how the depth and breath of AAS collections proved indispensable for their research. Sometimes referred to as "the stuff of everyday life," AAS resources not only support new trends in research, but the expansive range of primary documents has enabled the institution to foster a new area of study--the history of the book. An overview of its Program in the History of the Book in American Culture provides examples of the AAS leadership role in this academic discipline.
The American Antiquarian Society (AAS), the oldest national historical organization in the United States, has a research library containing the most accessible collection of materials printed from the colonial period through the Civil War and Reconstruction. An international community of researchers uses these resources for their literary, historical, cultural, genealogical, bibliographical, and artistic projects. In their work, they have explored and expanded the frontiers of scholarship by probing the well-known and unexpected wealth of sources within the Society's collections. Some have affectionately described their experiences in such glowing terms as "research brigadoon" and "research spa." This article will discuss whatmakes AAS a premier research center for the humanities and how its collections and programs support new trends in scholarship.
THE EVOLUTIONS OF THE INSTITUTION AND COLLECTIONS
The history of AAS begins with one person--Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831). As a young boy, Thomas was apprenticed to Boston printer Zechariah Fowle (1724-1776), with whom he labored from 1755 to 1765. It was in Fowle's print shop that Thomas set his first type from a copy of a broadside ballad, The Lawyer's Pedigree. Inspired in the ways of printing from an early age, Thomas established the most influential printing and publishing business in the country following the American Revolution. His businesses in the young nation included newspapers, a paper mill, a bindery, and bookstores, making him the leading printer, publisher, and bookseller of his generation (Whitehill, 1962).
Thomas left his legacy in 1812 when he founded the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. Filled with the patriotic spirit of the newly independent country, he sought to collect and preserve "every variety of book, pamphlet and manuscript that might be valuable in illustrating any and all parts of American history" (Whitehill, 1962, pp. 71-72). He devoted his life to collecting, scholarship, and philanthropy. Thomas gave generous gifts to the Society, including his private collection of 8,000 books that he had personally cataloged on 217 manuscript pages, and more than $20,000 for its first library building. He was relentless in his drive to acquire materials. Although he loved finely bound books, he was just as comfortable printing or acquiring inexpensive items, "the stuff of everyday life"--newspapers, children's books, travel literature, almanacs, broadsides, political tracts, sermons, primers, etiquette manuals, and government documents, to name but a few. Among the volumes he gave to the Society are such rarities as the first book printed in British North America, commonly known as the Bay Psalm Book (1640);John Eliot's Indian Bible (1663), translated into the Algonquian language; and the first American edition of Mother Goose's Melody (1786). Of special significance for the early American book trades, he deposited his private and business correspondence, diaries, and legal documents, even his apprenticeship indenture to Zechariah Fowle.
Thomas also gave the Society a collection of hastily printed broadside ballads that he purchased in bulk from a Boston printer in 1813, making him the first broadside ballad collector in the United States. These rare sheets span the period from the Revolutionary era through the early part of the War of 1812. In presenting this collection to the Society, Thomas's inscription speaks volumes about his interest in print in every form: "Songs, Ballads, &c. In Three Volumes. Purchased from a Ballad Printer and Seller in Boston, 1813. Bound up for Preservation, to shew what articles of this kind are in vogue with the Vulgar at this time, 1814. N.B. Songs and common Ballads are not so well printed at this time as they [were] 70 years ago, in Boston. Presented to the Society by Isaiah Thomas. August, 1814." (1)
By the time of Thomas's death in 1831, the Society had been infused with his spirit to acquire, preserve, and make accessible the printed record of the United States. Under the stewardship of subsequent librarians, the collections expanded in every conceivable direction. Christopher Columbus Baldwin (1800-1835) added substantially to the collections during his tenure as the third librarian from 1827 to 1835. An energetic bibliophile, Baldwin enthusiastically recorded his acquisition conquests throughout his diary. Perhaps the most fascinating entries deal with the private library of Thomas Wallcut (1758-1840) of Boston. In the morning of 2 August 1834, Baldwin arrived in Boston and went to the garret on India Street where Wallcut's collection was stored. He spent five days in a space of oppressive heat but filled with countless books and pamphlets. He wrote of the treasures that surrounded him in that fourth-floor oil store:
They were in trunks, bureaus, and chests, baskets, tea chests and old drawers, and presented a very odd appearance.... Mr. Wallcut told me that I might take all the pamphlets and newspapers I could find andall the books that treated of American history.... Everything was covered with venerable dust, and as I was under a slated roof and the thermometer at ninety-three, I had a plenty hot time of it.... The value of the rarities I found there, however, soon made me forget the heat, and I have never seen such happy moments.... Great numbers of the productions of our early authors were turned up at every turn.... (Baldwin, 1901, pp. 317-321)
On the fifth day of Baldwin's stunning acquisition, he filled a wagon with nearly 4,500 pounds of books, pamphlets, and newspapers and returned to Worcester. Today, the Wallcut imprints are one of the most important collections of Americana acquired by the Society in the nineteenth century.
Successors of Thomas and Baldwin continued the drive to acquire materials. They also made significant contributions to scholarship, emulating Thomas's History of Printing in America, a seminal reference work for the early history of printing and typography (Thomas, 1810). For …