American Antiquarian Society

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Founded in 1812 by Revolutionary War patriot and printer Isaiah Thomas, the American Antiquarian Society is both a learned society and a major independent research library. The AAS library today houses the largest and most accessible collection of books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, periodicals, music, and graphic arts material printed through 1876 in what is now the United States, as well as manuscripts and a substantial collection of secondary texts, bibliographies, and digital resources and reference works related to all aspects of American history and culture before the twentieth century. AAS was presented with the 2013 National Humanities Medal by President Obama in a ceremony at the White House.

Collections

The AAS library contains some four million items housed on some 25 miles of shelving in Antiquarian Hall (the library building) at 185 Salisbury Street in Worcester, Massachusetts.  The following are highlights of the collection:

  • The library contains approximately 60,000 books and pamphlets printed before 1821.
  • The largest single collection of almanacs and yearbooks (some 15,000 titles) printed in the United States between the years 1656 and 1876 are housed at AAS. The collections also include almanacs for Canada, Mexico, and the West Indies.
  • The sheet music collection includes some 70,000 pieces of instrumental, vocal, secular, and religious music from  American and European composers. More than 5,000 volumes of hymnals and sacred music are also housed at the Society.
  • The AAS collection of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American newspapers is considered the finest anywhere. It contains more than two million issues published throughout the United States, Canada and the West Indies. This collection, which takes up some seven miles of shelves, includes many complete runs of newspapers.
  • The juvenile literature collection contains some 17,000 titles, including works of fiction and pedagogy. Included in this collection are 1,500 titles published by the McLoughlin Brothers publishing firm (ca. 1850–1899).
  • The Society holds the largest collection of American cookbooks printed through 1860.
  • The graphics collection includes political cartoons, maps, lithographs, portraits, photographs, and paintings. This collection includes all but one of Paul Revere’s engravings.
  • The graphic arts department also contains a strong collection of ephemera that includes such diverse items as menus, trade cards, watch papers, currency, valentines, merit awards, diplomas, railroad tickets, playbills, calendars, membership certificates, and games.
  • The manuscript department contains over 1,200 collections housed in the Kresge Manuscript Room that span the years 1613–1930.
  • Although the manuscript collections are varied and diverse, their principal strengths are in four areas: American book publishing and collecting; New England diaries; papers of prominent early New Englanders; and papers and records of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Central Massachusetts families, voluntary associations, and businesses.
  • AAS houses a copy of The Whole Booke of Psalmes, commonly referred to as the Bay Psalm Book. Printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1640, this was the first book printed in America.
  • The Society also has the only surviving copy of Pamela by Samuel Richardson printed by Benjamin Franklin in 1742. This was the first modern novel published in America. The Society also holds a first edition of the journals of Lewis and Clark, and the first Bible published in this country, an edition printed in the language of the Algonquin Indians.

 

 

Membership

Members, who now number more than a thousand persons, are elected by their colleagues in recognition of scholarship, for support of cultural institutions, for manifest interest in bibliographical matters, or for distinction as community or national leaders in humanistic affairs. The membership includes scholars, educators, publishers, collectors, cultural administrators, civic leaders, journalists, writers, and filmmakers, as well as lay persons with an interest in the field of American history. Fourteen presidents of the United States have been members, and AAS members have been awarded over sixty Pulitzer Prizes and over fifty Bancroft Prizes for their work. Members have been elected from every region of our nation and from thirty-three foreign countries.

History of the Society

AAS was founded in 1812. It is the third oldest historical society in the United States and the first to be national, rather than local or regional, in the scope of its collections. Worcester was chosen as home to the Society as it was thought to be safe from the guns of British warships that were then threatening coastal areas in the War of 1812.

Isaiah Thomas (1749–1831) founded the Society. Thomas was an influential patriot printer who smuggled his press out of Boston before the British authorities could shut it down on the eve of the American Revolution.  He reestablished his Boston newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, in Worcester. In the first issue—the first newspaper printed in Worcester—he recounted the battle of Lexington and Concord under a masthead that proclaimed “Americans!--- Liberty or Death!---Join or Die!” 

After the Revolution, Thomas became the leading printer, editor, publisher, and bookseller in the United States. Upon his retirement in 1802, Thomas began collecting the records of the country he helped to create.  He was keenly interested in material that would describe the lives and thoughts of common people. In his search for historical sources, he purchased the complete office files of many Revolutionary-era newspapers and amassed a large collection of printed ballads. These collections—including Thomas’s own library of 8,000 volumes, which he donated to the Society upon its creation—form the nucleus of the present-day AAS collections.

During the nineteenth century, AAS was involved in a wide range of activities, including archaeological excavations and the establishment of a museum. In 1910, the Society chose to be a library exclusively, concentrating its efforts on preserving and collecting the printed record of American culture. AAS abandoned active archaeological work and dispersed its museum collections to other institutions at this time. The Society is now housed in a building built in 1909 designed specifically to be a research library.  This building, the third home to AAS, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The library is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Wednesday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is closed on all legal holidays. The library is open to researchers, free of charge. For more information visit the Society's website at www.americanantiquarian.org