What type of research is conducted? Not all research at the AAS is strictly academic or part of someone’s term paper. Ellen Dunlap cites an example of a gentleman who had discovered the diary of a 19th century Vermont farmer. The farmer had kept a record of every book he read, sermon or lecture he attended. Who says Vermonters aren’t fun? The researcher wanted to recreate that life, to experience as much of what life was like for the farmer as he could. This meant reading the same books and lectures the farmer had read or heard. Where can you not only find these old texts, but actually be allowed to read them? Welcome to the AAS.
Now that we’ve mentioned Ellen Dunlap, it’s time for a more formal introduction. She’ll be the first to tell you that she’s part of a team of dedicated and exceptional people. Nevertheless, she’s an outstanding spokesperson for the AAS, and this writer was privileged to have Ms. Dunlap as tour guide during a recent visit to Antiquarian Hall.
Ms. Dunlap has served the AAS as president since 1992. Her unplanned track to the AAS goes back to the early 1970’s, when, as a student at the University of Texas, she took a course in the history of aviation. As she explains it, she had no interest in history nor aviation. It was just that she had a hole to fill in her schedule, and this course took place at a convenient time in a convenient location. At the time, UT (University of Texas) was amassing a collection on aviation, and one of the course requirements was that students “volunteer” to sort magazines. That was the start of a career.
She continued to work on the aviation project, even as she went to library school. When she graduated, Ms. Dunlap got a job as a research librarian, helping people use the collections. The job brought her into the world of collectors, dealers and archivists. In 1983, she was asked to become director of the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia. Ms. Dunlap explains that Rosenbach was everything UT wasn’t. UT was vast; Rosenbach was a house museum, a “curious mix” of items collected by the Rosenbach brothers, dealers in rare books and assorted items, during the first half of the 20th century. Ms. Dunlap served as their director for nine years, all the while putting together a community of people interested in rare books.
In 1992, Ellen Dunlap was asked to head the AAS. “I say asked because I really wasn’t very qualified on paper,” she says, "but the search committee evidently thought differently.” Evidently what they had in mind was expanding the reach of the Antiquarian Society, and this is Ms. Dunlap’s forte. Clearly the Society wants everyone to be aware of its collections and its programs, and its president is making sure that this mission is accomplished.
One activity of the AAS of which Ms. Dunlap is particularly proud is the fellowship program. Many fellows will stay for a few weeks while they conduct their projects, but others may stay as long as a year. Their research can be anything pertaining to the Society’s collections. Fellows are encouraged to work with each other if their research overlaps, and the AAS’ staff willingly becomes involved in the process. As Ms. Dunlap points out, some libraries can be “ungenerous” with help. “Here the staff prides itself in getting you the answers to your questions, sometimes even before you ask. Nobody leaves here without commenting on the helpfulness of the staff and the support of the community.”