- The American Antiquarian Society, 1812-2012: A Bicentennial History by Philip F. Gura
Two centuries ago the Patriot printer Isaiah Thomas took measures to ensure that the trove of imprints, newspapers, tracts, and ephemera he amassed while composing his A History of Printing in America (1810) would not be dispersed. He wished it to be kept together to materialize for posterity the labors of generations of pressmen in North America. The collection was unusual in that it reflected the promiscuous fascination of a printer with all the many things that issued from the press. Only one such totalizing collection of press productions had ever been attempted in the English-speaking world—the library maintained by the congers of booksellers and printers at the Chapter Coffeehouse on Paternoster Row in London, begun in the 1730s. (The libraries maintained by the Stationer's Company, Cambridge University, and the Bodleian were all selective.) When the Chapter's last club, The Witenagamot, ceased meeting, the coffeehouse-keeper [End Page 258] broke the library, sometime between 1805 and 1810. Thomas certainly knew of the fate of that library, for Joseph Dennie, the Harvard wit who served as Thomas's editor for the Farmer's Weekly Museum and as editor of the Port-Folio after the turn of the nineteenth century, had visited the Chapter's famous club in its last days, repeatedly declared his admiration of the group, and grieved the loss of its legacy. To avoid such a fate for his collection, Thomas organized the professional men of Worcester into an association dedicated to contributing "to the Advancement of the Arts and Sciences" by "collecting and preserving such materials, as may be useful in making their progress, not only in the United States, but in other Parts of the Globe." They petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for a charter of incorporation, which was duly granted. The inaugural meeting took place at the Exchange Coffeehouse in Congress Square in Boston on November 19, 1812.
Two centuries have passed since that auspicious day. Thomas's collection of printed material has swelled to become the superlative deposit of pre-1876 American printed matter in the world. Historians now use the collection to measure much more than merely the progress of Arts and Sciences. And no other institution in the nation does more to memorialize the role of printers and print in the transformations of manners, ideology, and material conditions during American society's formative era. Yet the American Antiquarian Society's path to such conspicuous importance in collecting and recollecting the cultural transformation of the United States was in no way foreordained; nor was the society's grasp of its destiny always firm. Philip F. Gura's The American Antiquarian Society, 1812 to 2012 chronicles the curious story of a printer's brilliant vanity project morphing into the vanguard research library for the dissemination of holdings in micromedia and digital forms.
Official history, because of its panegyric character, poses peculiar challenges to writers. Gura brings a number of qualities to the task that make him congenial as celebrant of the society's accomplishments. His training and professional involvement with those New England Institutions— Harvard University, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the John Carter Brown Library—that interacted gravitationally with the American Antiquarian Society imbue him with tolerance for the peculiarity, and at times parochialism, of its leaders' judgments and behaviors. His activity as a collector vests him with an understanding of the pathologies of acquisition [End Page 259] and retention that moved the donors and librarians of the AAS. His work as an intellectual and his literary understanding of transcendentalism give him insight into the moderate Unitarian atmosphere suffusing the original society. And his interest in the more expansive forms of cultural history supplies him with appreciation for the painstaking bibliographical work entailed in describing the entirety of print production for eras and genres.
Gura organizes his narrative by regime. So of the varieties of official history, this is dynastic history. Because the society has had so few directors over the course of its...