American Antiquarian Society's Bicentennial Book

WORCESTER, MA— To celebrate its bicentennial, the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) commissioned Philip F. Gura to write The American Antiquarian Society, 1812-2012: A Bicentennial History.
            Gura traces the history of AAS by concentrating on the intellectual development of the institution as a cultural repository and center for scholarly study on American writing and publishing. He charts the development of the Society’s collections from the founding gift of 8,000 volumes to its current holdings of over four million items - including two-thirds of all American imprints created before 1821 - described by historian Gordon Wood as “the greatest collection of early Americana in the world.”
            The book also explores the uniquely democratic nature of the AAS collections. The Society’s founder, Isaiah Thomas, a Revolutionary War-era printer who became the most influential publisher of the New Republic, sought both exceptional and commonplace items. He acquired some of the new nation’s rarest books and manuscripts including the bulk of the Mather family library and a rare edition of the first book published in America, The Whole Booke of Psalms (Bay Psalm Book, 1640). But Thomas also collected inexpensive and ephemeral materials such  as broadside ballads - single sheets with popular songs sold cheaply on the streets and sung in taverns - that, according to Thomas, “shew what articles of this kind are in vogue with the Vulgar at this time (1813-14).” The range of material that Thomas collected established the policy that his successors have continued throughout the history of the institution. Today, the Society’s collections provide readers with unparalleled information on all aspects of American culture from 1640 through 1876.
            The bicentennial history also explores how the Society played major roles in the rise of library professionalism and the growth of American bibliography.  The library was at the forefront of designing reading rooms and housing collections that would prove influential to other libraries throughout the country. Samuel Foster Haven who was AAS librarian for 43 years in the nineteenth century was a founding member of the American Library Association. The Society was actively involved in many bibliographical projects including the multivolume works of Joseph Sabin (Bibliotheca Americana: A Dictionary of Books Relating to America) and Charles Evans (American Bibliography). The Society’s support of bibliographical scholarship culminated in the 1980s when the institution became a leading center in the field of book history with the founding of the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture. A signature outcome of this program was the publication of the five-volume A History of the Book in America.
            Providing access to its collections is a major component of the Society’s activities and this new history traces the evolution of this work starting with the efforts of Christopher Columbus Baldwin, second AAS librarian, to create the first catalog, a task that was completed after his tragic death in a stagecoach accident on the Cumberland Road, the nation’s first super highway. The book also describes the advent of the card catalog and of microprint technology that led AAS to become a pioneer in filming the earliest literature of the nation for distribution to colleges and universities through its partnership with Readex Microprint Corporation. This initiative was started by AAS librarian Clifford K. (Ted) Shipton in 1954 and did much to expand and transform the scholarship of early American studies in the second half of the twentieth century.  The Society now has a robust online catalog accessible through the Society’s website ( It continues to work with Readex and other commercial partners to digitize the collections and make them available to libraries and universities through subscription-based products.
            The American Antiquarian Society has played a vital role in historical scholarship for the last two hundred years. Over the course of its history many distinguished scholars and writers have visited and used the collections, including: George Bancroft, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Samuel Eliot Morison, Esther Forbes, Ken Burns, Robert Gross, Jill Lepore, David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick, Laurel Ulrich, Alan Taylor, and Gordon Wood. Edmund Mills Barton, AAS librarian from 1883 to 1908, summed up the Society’s mission then and now when he declared the American Antiquarian Society was “a private library for the public good.”
            Philip F. Gura the author of The American Antiquarian Society, 1812-2012: A Bicentennial History is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He is the author of many books on a wide variety of subjects, including: The Crossroads of American History and Literature (1996); America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century (1999); C.F. Martin and His Guitars, 1796-1873 (2003);  Jonathan Edwards: America’s Evangelical  (2005); American Transcendentalism: A History (2007),which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award; and Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, which will be published in 2013.
            The American Antiquarian Society, 1812-2012: A Bicentennial History was edited by Caroline Sloat, AAS director of book publications. She also selected and researched the 120 images that appear in the 454 page volume. The book is published by the Society and distributed by Oak Knoll Press.
American Antiquarian Society
            Celebrating its bicentennial as the country’s first national historical organization, 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, sheet 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 works, bibliographies, and other reference works related to all aspects of American history and culture before the twentieth century.
            The Society sponsors a broad range of programs-visiting research fellowships, research, education, publications, lectures, and concerts-for constituencies ranging from school children and their teachers through undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, creative and performing artists and writers, and the general public.
            The AAS library is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. and Wednesday from 10:00 a.m.-8:00 p.m. It is closed on all legal holidays. The library is open to serious researchers, free of charge. Complimentary public tours are held Wednesdays at 3:00 p.m.  The Society can be found on the worldwide web at The American Antiquarian Society is funded in part by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency that supports public programs in the arts, humanities, and sciences.
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