The American Antiquarian Society: America's Library of Record for 200 Years

Significant milestones are naturally a cause for celebration. But they are also an opportunity for reflection and reinvestment. This year, the American Antiquarian Society celebrates its bicentennial. For me our celebrations of this event renewed my own understanding of what the core mission of the organization is and its great importance to our sense of ourselves as Americans.

As former president Bill Clinton attested in a short video tribute, from its very beginning the Society has been a very democratic institution. Isaiah Thomas, who was concerned that Americans were losing a sense of their heritage, founded us in 1812. He gathered both diverse objects and people together to create the first national historical organization. He sought members from all professions and from throughout the states and territories that then comprised this country and encouraged them to send materials both historic and contemporary to the headquarters of the organization in Worcester, where they would be safe from the marauding British Navy. Thomas himself was keenly interested in all kinds of printed materials from fine works like Bibles and classical treatises to cheap broadsides of popular ballads, advertisements and announcements of events – the equivalent of historic junk mail. All were equally importatnt to him and he trusted that they would – in time – become historic and valuable.

Thomas vision would prove to be amazingly enduring it still guides the Society today as our bicentennial celebrations attest. We chose to celebrate our two hundred years of making history in an equally democratic fashion, crafting programs and projects that appealed to diverse people both those who know us well and those who don’t. At the heart of it all are the physical objects – the newspapers, books, pamphlets, images and manuscripts that make up our collection and that tell the stories of the American people.

We began our celebrations with the creation of a new book. We 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. The book also explores how AAS has played major roles in the rise of library professionalism and the growth of American bibliography and historical scholarship. We also created an online companion piece to this volume that appears on our website at

We celebrated artifacts and the people who collect them with an exhibition at the Grolier Club in New York City entitled In Pursuit of a Vision: Two Centuries of Collecting at the American Antiquarian Society. This show, which ran from September 12 through November 17, described the story of the significant collectors, librarians, and bibliographers who helped develop and expand the Society’s collections. We also published a fully-illustrated 300-page color catalog of In Pursuit of a Vision, and created a digital version of the exhibition which is available through our website.

To help those not familiar with the Society gain a greater understanding of our collections and programs, we produced a new orientation film. Working with Lawrence Hott and Diane Carey of Hott Productions/Florentine Films, we created a main film and then five shorter web modules on various aspects of the Society’s operations. In these films well-known AAS members Jill Lepore, Nathaniel Philbrick, David McCullough, and former fellows Honorée Jeffers, Allison Stagg, and Ilyon Woo, Worcester teacher Linda Forte, historians and AAS members William Fowler, Scott Casper, and William Reese provide powerful testimonials of what the Society and its collections mean to them and the nation. We now show this film before all our public events and have placed it online and made it accessible through our own website.

With funding from Mass Humanities, CultureLEAP, the Fuller Foundation and Target stores we were able to revise a popular in-school theatrical presentation entitled Isaiah Thomas-Patriot Printer and present it before every fifth grade student in the Worcester Public Schools. The book is at the heart of this theatrical presentation. Professional actor Neil Gustafson portrays AAS founder Isaiah Thomas and goes into classrooms dressed in period clothing. He assumes it is the year 1812 and shares some of his collection of American imprints with students and then brainstorms founding the Society. All of the documents Isaiah shares with students are also online at along with a series of lesson plans designed by classroom instructors and aligned to local and national curriculum frameworks. is a website we have created especially for educators, and it contains both facsimiles and transcriptions of AAS materials as well as background information and curricula.

Throughout 2012 we celebrated the bicentennial with a series of signature public programs featuring some of our most notable members and distinguished artists. The theme of the series was “Why History Matters,” and it explored a variety of concepts related to the importance and endurance of the discipline. Lecturers also spoke eloquently about why AAS matters as they discussed the essence and vitality of historic primary source texts and images and the need to preserve them for the future. Presenters included: Gordon S. Wood, Jill Lepore, David Blight, Joseph Ellis, Alan Taylor and Patricia Nelson Limerick among others.

And finally, we capped our bicentennial celebrations on October 27th with a black tie gala entitled “Black and White and Read All Over.” Nearly two hundred people celebrated our birthday with a cake in the shape of Antiquarian Hall, historic period dancers, a silhouette artist, and lots of fine dining, drinking and dancing.

For two hundred years AAS has been the library of record for the American people, holding both the greatest works of literature and the most trivial expressions of doggerel in perpetuity for all Americans to study and discuss. Celebrating our bicentennial gave me an opportunity to reexamine and reinvigorate this democratic mission.

Photos, top to bottom:

“A Member of the Temperence Society,” 1833, Lithograph, from the AAS collection, originally published by Risso & Browne

Historian Ilyon Woo is interviewed on camera by filmmaker Larry Hott as part of the Society’s new orientation film. Photo by Abby Hutchinson

Neil Gustafson as Isaiah Thomas shares some of the items that make up the collections of the American Antiquarian Society with fifth grade students at the Tatnuck Elementary school in Worcester. Photo by Abby Hutchinson

Historic dancers perform at the Society’s bicentennial gala ball in Antiquarian Hall. Photo by Frank Armstrong

Author: James David Moran

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