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

- by Michael Stillman


Volumes of early material on AAS’ shelving. Photo courtesy of AAS.

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 website:www.americanantiquarian.org.