The AAS Printers’ File Is Being Digitized

Printers fileThe American Antiquarian Society‘s Printers’ File contains information on 6000 people who were involved in the early American book trade. Emily Wells, a staff member at the AAS and an incoming College of William and Mary graduate student, will be working on the project this summer.

Here is a taste of her report at the AAS blog, Past in Present:

At present, this resource is only available to researchers who are able to visit the reading room and peruse the cards in person. To make the Printers’ File more easily accessible, AAS is working to digitize and transfer the information recorded on these cards to a linked open data resource. Not only will this resource make the Printers’ File available to anyone with a computer and internet access, but it will also allow researchers to answer complex research queries and draw connections between the people and places recorded within the scope of the project.

As the person hired to enter data, I am working to interpret and transfer the information written on the original typewritten cards to a digital environment while also helping to formulate guidelines that will standardize the data entry process. Through my work with the Printers’ File, I have discovered that there is a fundamental difficulty that arises when attempting to fit biographical information into a standardized format. To create a working dataset, one must determine the best way to field a person’s life experience, something that is inherently messy and complex, within the limits of a data entry form.

Read the entire post here.

Historians are very excited about this development, perhaps none more than Joseph Adelman of Framingham State University in Massachusetts.  Here is a taste of a post he wrote at his blog:

A few weeks ago I was grouchy about the prospects of closed digitization projects in early American history. This morning I’m ecstatic. At the Past is Present blog of the American Antiquarian Society, Emily Wells writes today about her experience working to digitize the AAS Printers’ File, a massive compendium of information about participants in the American printing trades from 1639 to 1820.

I’m particularly excited about this project because the research for my dissertation/first book so heavily relied on the twenty or so drawers of salmon-colored cards in the AAS reading room. In fact, the first summer after I moved to Massachusetts I spent several weeks doing nothing but go through the card catalog, drawer by drawer, to build my own database of printers from the 1750s to the 1790s for the purposes of my research.

If you read Wells’s post, you’ll see just how sophisticated she and her AAS colleagues have had to get in order to capture the complexity of biographical information on the cards (for which we all owe an enormous debt to Avis Clarke). To give you a comparison, let me show you the slide I used in a few job talks to discuss my database:

Read the rest of Joseph’s post here.

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.

Teaching the Civil War at the American Antiquarian Society


Kevin Levin, a secondary school teacher, Civil War scholar, and author of the Civil War Memory blog, sat down with fellow historian Megan Kate Nelson to talk about his experience teaching the American Studies Seminar at the American Antiquarian Society. The interview offers some nice insight into teaching the Civil War using archival materials.

Here is a taste:

MKN: What advice do you have for university and secondary teachers who want to integrate work with archival resources into their classes?

KL: With all the technology available to university and secondary teachers it is easy to lose sight of the potential value of exposing students to archival materials. As a high school history teacher I have found that university archivists are more than happy to help organize classroom projects. During my time in Charlottesville, Virginia I co-taught an American Studies course that worked with UVA’s Special Collections staff. We visited campus two times as a group to give students time with a specific document that they were required to interpret on their own webpage.

Local historical societies are almost always enthusiastic about working with teachers to expose students to collections that are often under utilized. Student work with archival materials does not have to be in the form of a semester-long course. Even minimal exposure can have a profound impact. Certainly, access to a local archive will vary. In those situations the rich collection of digital materials from the Library of Congress or Readex is the next best thing.

MKN: Has this class changed the way you teach, or the way you do your own research in Civil War history?

KL: Archival research has always been an important role in my teaching, but this particular course served to reinforce its importance. No other project gives students the experience of being able to apply the kinds of analytical skills that define academic history.

Read the entire interview at Civil War Memory


Some Great 19th-Century Newspaper Titles

Periodical masthead from collections of American Antiquarian Society

Vincent Golden, the Curator of Newspapers and Periodicals at the American Antiquarian Society, has uncovered some pretty interesting titles (with mastheads) of 19th-century newspapers.

Read the post and see the mastheads at Past is Present, the AAS blog.

Here are the titles:

  1.  Sucker and Farmer’s Record  (Pittsfield, IL)
  2.  Widow’s Bite and Lincoln Advocate  (Cleveland, OH)
  3.  Horseneck Truth-Teller and Gossip Journal (Greenwich, CT)
  4.  Criminal Life of Albany  (NY)
  5.  Honest Politician  (Washington, D.C.)
  6.  Estabrook’s Great Public Chowder  (Boston, MA)
  7.  Stephen H. Branch’s Alligator  (New York, NY)
  8.  Mud Turtle  (Alligator Bayou, TX)
  9.  Striped Pig  (Boston, MA)
  10.  Pitch Fork of Righteousness  (Philadelphia, PA)

The First Published Map of the American Revolution

This is very cool.  Historian Allison Lange discusses the first published map of the American Revolution.  It is housed at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, MA.  

Here is a taste of her post at the AAS blog, “Past is Present”:

A Plan of the Town and Harbour of Boston was published in London on July 29, 1775, three months after the battles. Little is known about the mapmaker. He may have witnessed the skirmishes and sent his manuscript across the Atlantic to London engraver C. Hall. Or, De Costa could have drawn the original map in London using information from the battle and an existing survey of the area. He dedicated his plan to Richard Whitworth, a Member of Parliament from 1768 to 1780, who was likely his patron.

Unlike most of the era’s battle maps, De Costa’s is a pictorial map. He illustrated the progression of troops using human figures rather than rectilinear blocks. Small groups of soldiers represent the British troops’ march to Concord and back. They fire at their opponents, and the wounded figures fall to the ground. De Costa represented encampments with tents and cannons and showed specific British ships, labeled in his key, in the Boston harbor.

The Worcester Revolution of 1774

What was the “Worcester Revolution of 1774?”  Past is Present, the blog of the American Antiquarian Society, explains:

On September 6, 1774, 4,622 militiamen from 37 towns marched into Worcester, shiretown for  the county, closed the Royal courts, and forced each court official to resign. Forming two lines, they forced each court official, hat in hand, to disavow the recent Massachusetts Government Act, which revoked the Province’s charter and disenfranchised its citizens. With this dramatic action, all British authority vanished from Worcester County, never to return. While the actual war for American independence started in Lexington and Concord, the revolution – the actual transfer of political and military authority – occurred here in Worcester nine months earlier.

This summer the town of Worcester, Massachusetts is celebrating this event with a host of events, including tours, lectures, and other special events.  Learn more here or watch this video:

New Chairs at the American Antiquarian Society

Picture of AAS chairs from “Past is Present” blog

For over a century, readers working in the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. MA sat in Colonial revival Windsor chairs. That all changed on January 6, 2014.  Here is  a taste of the AAS blog’s “History of the Reading Room Chairs.”

Instead of sending a committee out to visit other libraries, we brought several different models of chairs in to the reading room and asked AAS fellows and readers to test drive them in the late fall of 2013. After extensive evaluation—and yes, there were written reports—we purchased 50 Knoll ReGeneration work chairs. Our new chairs are ergonomic, fully adjustable, and cushioned, and thus far the reviews have been enthusiastic. The surviving old models were mostly distributed among staff offices at AAS, where they will continue to age gracefully. We hope that the next time you’re in the neighborhood you’ll stop by and give the new chairs a try yourself. They should make your visit a bit more comfortable.

How do we get a hold of one of the old chairs?  Or will they be added to the AAS collection?

Picking for the American Antiquarian Society Library

Over at Past is Present: The American Antiquarian Society Blog, Laura Wasowicz begins a series of posts in which curators will describe their favorite stories about finding a new acquisition for the AAS library.

Here is a taste of Wasowicz’s story: “Curatorial Instinct: Or Flying Blind in Upstate New York.”  Here is a taste:

Early last summer, I (along with curatorial colleagues Vince Golden and Elizabeth Pope) piled into a rental van to travel to upstate New York to pay a visit to dealer Peter Luke, who has managed to fill an old house with crates and boxes full of books, newspapers, and printed scraps politely known as ephemera. While scouring the musty boxes for children’s books, I found ABC Book I, a charming piece of mid-nineteenth-century color relief printing (see right). It was issued without an imprint, adding to its mystery and fascination. I thought it looked very familiar, but could not conclusively tell whether AAS had it or not. Although my colleagues had cell phones with internet search capability that could access our online catalog, Peter’s house was just beyond the reach of the cell towers. My instinct told me I had seen it before, and that we already had it, but I took Peter up on his generous offer to let me take it back to AAS and check it.

Read the rest here.

American Antiquarian Society: The Place To Go For Historic Political Cartoons

“King Andrew (Jackson)” from the collection of the American Antiquarian Society

Check out Lauren Hewes’s post about the cartoon collection at the AAS.

Here is a taste:

AAS holds a comprehensive collection of political cartoons produced in the United States between 1764 and 1876.  The separately published American cartoon collection holds over 600 examples of caricatures, satires, and political subjects (European Political cartoons are housed separately).  The collection includes everything from very early cartoons relating to the establishment and operation of the federal government (including a cartoon comparing Jefferson to Washington – unfavorably (see right)), to slanderous depictions of local politicians.  The cartoon collection is widely used by a variety of scholars and collectors looking for evidence of historical activities, trends, and motivations.

The Society’s collection is included in our main online catalog with brief records for each cartoon (some better than others), which include the artist’s name, the title, the publisher, date, and a short description of the image.  Subject headings such as “War of 1812” or “Slavery” are helpful, but not having full descriptive text is very limiting.  It was decided in August of 2012 to set up the cartoons as a side project for our digital photographer to work on “as time permits.”  It has taken nearly a year, but the images are now all digitized and linked to our catalog record.  You can now easily see images relating to the campaign of 1840, the Mexican-American War – from the Mexican side of the border – and the Civil War.  Each image can be enlarged so that all the words in the various speech bubbles are legible and details are easily understood. (Click on the links above for the catalog records of the examples shown below.) These scans can also be downloaded for teaching purposes and used in PowerPoint presentations by students and scholars alike.

Early American Periodicals That Were "One-Hit Wonders"

Over at Past is Present, the blog of the American Antiquarian Society, Vincent Golden calls our attention to a few early American periodicals that did not make it past the first issue.  For example, I am guessing that none of you have ever heard of The Gambler’s Mirror (1845), The White Man’s Newspaper (1851), or Smith & Barrow’s Monthly Magazine (1864).

Here is Golden’s description of The White Man’s Newspaper:

Issue no. 1 is dated May 1851.  No other issue has been found of this anti-abolitionist newspaper.  In the first issue, it boasted as having $50,000 of capital backing the publication of this radical newspaper.  Apparently that was not enough as it disappeared as suddenly as it made its debut.  AAS and Harvard have the only recorded copies of the first issue.

And here are a few musical “one-hit wonders” from the 1970s for your consideration: