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.