Destined for Men: Visual Materials for Male Audiences, 1750-1880 takes place October 16-17, 2009, at the American Visual Culture, the conference will examine prints, illustrations, and photographs from the perspective of the intended male audience. For more information, contact Georgia B. Barnhill at 508.471.2173, or look for updates at www.americanantiquarian.org/chavic2009.htm.
The formation and development of the collections and programs of the library of the American Antiquarian Society constitutes a significant portion of the history of the Society. The purpose of this guide is to describe those collections and programs. Accordingly, an extended chronology is not required here. However, there are some useful benchmarks in the long career of the Society that will be useful to note in this guide and that will help provide a framework for the following chapters on the Society's collections and programs.
The Society was incorporated by act of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on October 24, 1812, in response to a petition from Isaiah Thomas and his colleagues that they might establish an organization to "encourage the collection and preservation of the Antiquities of our country, and of curious and valuable productions in Art and Nature [that] have a tendency to enlarge the sphere of human knowledge." Further, they wished to promote the use of such collections in order to "aid the progress of science, to perpetuate the history of moral and political events, and to improve and interest posterity." These objectives still form the basic rationale of our work, which is to collect, organize, and preserve the records of the lives and activities of people who have inhabited this continent. We do so to encourage the study and understanding of the past. Such an activity is valuable to mankind on both secular and religious grounds. We accept that an appreciation of the works of people who came before us is a vital part of a full life. Historical perspective on our lives and times is acquired by a knowledge of the past, thereby giving us a sense of proportion that can be instructive and humbling, hubris being endemic amongst us. As stewards of this portion of the universe, we are bound to treasure God's gifts to us and to pass them on undiminished. Those gifts include a knowledge of the past, an appreciation of the present, and an obligation to the future. In 1813, Thomas instructed his fellow members of the Society in much the same manner: "We cannot obtain a knowledge of those, who are to come after us, nor are we certain what will be the events of future times; as it is in our power, so it should be our duty, to bestow on posterity that, which they cannot give to us, but which they may enlarge and improve, and transmit to those who shall succeed them. It is but paying a debt we owe to our forefathers."
The Society was established at a time when all historians were "amateurs" of history. The members of AAS through most of its first century were the sort of amateur gentleman-scholar that Thomas was. As scholarship became professionalized, AAS took on that shape as well. Thus, through much of its history, AAS has been the kind of institution where both the amateurs and professors of history have collaborated and contributed to the gathering and dissemination of historical knowledge. The Society still attempts to provide resources, services, and programs that make the history of our nation interesting, pleasurable, and meaningful to as broad a constituency as possible. The course of the Society was set by the founder, a printer and publisher, a book collector, and the historian of his trade. He gave to the Society his collection of approximately 8,000 books, some of which, such as an incunable or two, had little to do with America. His other benefactions to AAS included the first library building, erected in 1820, and the residuum of his estate, which supported the Society for some years after his death in 1831. Beyond these gifts, however, was the intellectual vigor with which he endowed the Society. He sought out members from every part of the Union, who were expected to send printed and archaeological objects for preservation in the library or in the museum. Thus, in 1819, AAS received the Reverend William Bentley's bequest of his manuscripts, books on American history, and prints; Gov. DeWitt Clinton of New York gave the leaden plate buried at the mouth of the Muskingum River in Ohio in 1749 to mark the claims of the French king to the territories of the Ohio Valley; and Charles Wilkins in 1816 sent to Worcester the mummified remains of an Indian woman that were found in a cave in Kentucky. The earliest historical concerns of the Society centered on the evidences of prehistoric life in North America. Thomas painstakingly edited the disjointed thoughts and jumbled manuscript of Caleb Atwater of Circleville, Ohio, describing the Indian mounds in central Ohio for the first volume of our Transactions (1820). It was not until midcentury, after our then-librarian, Samuel Foster Haven, had published the Archaeology of the United States, a volume in the Smithsonian's series "Contributions to Knowledge," that AAS got out of the ethnological business. However, it should be remembered that one of our original charges was to take an interest in the history of the entire Western hemisphere. Effective involvement on such a scale was far beyond the powers of the Society, although a galaxy of prominent Latin American historians and diplomats graced our membership rolls until well into the twentieth century. The interests of Stephen Salisbury III in art (which led to the establishment of the Worcester Art Museum in 1896) and in Latin American archaeology prompted him to sponsor the archaeological expeditions to the Yucatan of Augustus LePlongeon and Edward H. Thompson. Haven lent his full support to these enterprises, and their reports were published in the Proceedings during the last quarter of the century.