A Good Home For Old Words

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The American Antiquarian Society, which houses two-thirds of all the material known to have been published in this country from 1640 to 1821, this year is celebrating its 175th anniversary. Located in Worcester, Massachusetts, it is an organization of great distinction as well as unique gentility. Its membership, limited to five hundred at any one time, has included twelve Presidents of the United States and forty-eight Pulitzer Prize-winning authors.

The work as well as the atmosphere of this superlative depository of our history was described by an appreciative English scholar of children’s literature who originally published her impressions of the society in the London Times Literary Supplement:

 

Those who are used to working in the rare-book rooms of American libraries behind bullet-proof glass and electronically controlled doors, scanned by closed-circuit television and frisked by armed guards, cannot fail to be struck by the gentlemanly way in which the American Antiquarian Society, the chief repository of early American historical material, treats its readers, or by the tranquillity of its reading-room, in which it is often difficult to discern other readers, even at what the library avers to be high season… .

Towards the end of Salisbury Street [in Worcester, Massachusetts] are the porticoed classical premises which the Society has occupied since 1910. It is rather like arriving at a club or a country house. There is a subdued but cordial welcome from a courtly major domo who presents the readers’ register with the air of a trusted family servant. Within are fine examples of colonial furniture and portraiture—objects which the Society has acquired almost absent-mindedly over the years. Melodious clocks chime out the quarters and the hours. The service is deft, rapid and personal—your books appear unsolicited on your desk the instant you are seen advancing over the threshold. The reading-room is comfortably small; the catalogues, issue desk and all the reference books you need are only a step from your chair. If American history is what you are after, then this must be the most agreeable library in the world.

Across the road is the private house (the last owner’s family portraits still hanging on the walls) which the Society has recently acquired and adapted to lodge five readers—its Fellows, for the most part—working on long-term projects, who before this would have had to find their own accommodation....There is a lot to be learnt from the other inhabitants of the Goddard-Daniels house....One was studying the book-trade in eighteenth-century America, one pursuing early Vermont families, a third scrutinizing old almanacs for mention of weather, a fourth reading Increase Mather’s journal, a fifth early children’s books.

When one’s research is in American history, this must be the most agreeable library in the world.

We were grateful for the comfort of the Goddard-Daniels house, since many of our hours were spent there. The gentlemanliness of the Society extends to the hours it keeps: it is open only until five o’clock, and closed the whole weekend....But you are allowed to carry off for weekend reading such books as are still in print—though it has to be said that replaceable material plays a very small part here, where so many of the holdings are unique items.

The American Antiquarian Society was founded by Isaiah Thomas who, fleeing from Boston and the retribution of the English during the American Revolution, had brought his patriot newspaper, the Massachusetts Spy, his printing press and his types to Worcester in 1775. He set up shop and remained there for fifty-six years, creating the principal printing and publishing business in the country, which eventually included newspapers, a paper mill, a bindery and bookshops. He was also a scholar and collector, one of the first to realize the historical value of ephemeral printing. He set out, for instance, to buy up the office files of every Revolutionary newspaper, and bought from a Boston music shop one copy of every ballad in stock. In 1812, two years after his History of Printing in America had appeared, he petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for permission to establish a society to which he proposed to transfer his library. The Society was incorporated in October, and a few months later he announced the gift of his library. As the war of 1812 was then in progress, Worcester, forty miles from the sea and the danger of enemy bombardment, was held to be a reasonably safe place for a collection which even then was realized to be irreplaceable. Thomas was the Society’s first president and a very active one. In assisting it to collect and preserve “every variety of book, pamphlet and manuscript that might be valuable in illustrating any and all parts of American history” he himself gave more than $20,000 and between seven and eight thousand books, including the library of the Mather family—“unquestionably the oldest in New England” he said proudly in his diary—which he bought from one of Cotton Mather’s granddaughters. When the Society’s holdings grew too large to be accommodated in his own house he contributed a site and money to build new premises, which were completed in 1820. His zeal for the well-being of the institution he had founded continued to the end. Three years before his death, when he was seventy-nine, he was cutting the grass.