A Tour of the American Antiquarian Society

AASOur reports from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence last weekend continue to roll in.  Elise Leal is a Ph.D candidate in American history at Baylor University.  She is  working on dissertation on the relationship between evangelicalism, social reform, and childhood in the early nineteenth century with a particular focus on the American Sundays school movement.  Read all of her posts here. –JF

On the third day of OAH 2016, I participated in a special tour of the American Antiquarian Society. Six other conference attendees joined my bright and early Saturday morning for the drive to Worcester. I was the only graduate student, as the majority of the group were archivists, plus a high school history teacher. One of the archivists was a native of Massachusetts and regaled us with interesting historical facts about the state to help pass the time. For example, I learned that if you take the commuter rail from Worcester to Boston, it will take you just as long to get there today as it did in the late nineteenth century due to the slow speed of the trains.

We were greeted at the archive by Paul Erickson, AAS Director of Academic Programs, and James Moran, AAS Director of Outreach. They began the tour by sharing a brief history of the Society’s illustrious founder, Isaiah Thomas. A Revolutionary War era patriot and printer, Thomas was an outspoken promoter for independence in his newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy, which forced him to flee from Boston to Worcester in 1775 to escape being arrested by the British. In 1812, Thomas founded the American Antiquarian Society (then called the American Society of Antiquities) out of his personal library, creating the first historical society established in the United States with a national focus. The AAS now houses the largest collection of materials produced before 1820 and is surpassed in total collections size only by the Library of Congress.

One thing that I appreciated about the tour was that it was structured without being restrictive. After the brief historical overview, Paul and Jim took us through the main AAS Postcard.jpgreading room and upper conference room containing historical memorabilia (think commemorative china plates sporting Lafayette’s face or a grandfather clock belonging to John Hancock). They then spent the majority of the tour taking us through various archival stacks. Throughout this whole process, they let us wander around with a fair degree of freedom and allowed us to handle many of the historical documents. For example, the first archival room we visited housed the AAS’s extensive collection of eighteenth and nineteenth-century newspapers. Paul and Jim pulled a selection of these newspapers for us to view, and they generously let us pour over these documents to our hearts’ content (it definitely took awhile…) My personal favorite, though, was the next room, which housed the nineteenth-century literature, pamphlets, graphic arts, maps, and the like. Paul asked about our research interests a few days before the tour, and he had prepared a lovely stack of American Sunday School Union books for me to view. Of course, the Revolutionary War letters from British officers, eyewitness accounts of an eighteenth-century cross-dresser, the mid-nineteenth century Valentine’s cards, and the giant hand-drawn genealogies that he pulled for other tour members were pretty cool too.

Speaking of cool things, Paul pointed out a large collection of railroad sources that have never been viewed and said that he’d love to have someone come use them for a project. If there are any early stage graduate students reading this, I’ve just found you a dissertation topic. You’re welcome.

In all, this two-hour tour was definitely worth the trip to Worcester. I got a fascinating insiders view of how archives are run from two very engaging AAS staff members. I also got to view a range of rare historical documents, some of which I didn’t know existed let alone thought I would handle. Many thanks to the American Antiquarian Society, and to Paul and Jim in particular, for making my first OAH experience that much more enjoyable.