Local History Makes Good-sometimes


The library of the Massachusetts Historical Society is locally oriented, for it specializes in basic printed materials relating to Massachusetts and, in a broader sense, to New England. Its manuscript collection has a far wider scope, and, being second only to that of the Library of Congress, it is an essential source for national as well as local history. It is, moreover, quite as concerned with the present as with earlier centuries. A 1968 pamphlet, American History and the Massachusetts Historical Society , contains this significant paragraph: It is an unfortunate but not uncommon error to suppose that historical societies, this one included, are concerned only with the quaint and antique and distant past, just as schoolchildren (and too many of their parents and teachers) suppose that history is something in costume and ended soon after 1800, or at the latest at Appomattox Court House. No one at the Massachusetts Historical Society wears a powdered wig, and today in its storage areas the sources for recent history compete for shrinking shelf room with colonial diaries and whalers’ logs. Modern files of papers tend to be bulkier than older ones; the recent gift of Senator Leverett Saltonstall’s [U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, 1944-67] papers, for example, weighed seven tons as delivered from Washington in General Service Administration trucks. The Society’s Director estimated in 1967 that the physical bulk of our manuscript acquisitions had quadrupled since the Second World War.

Although the Massachusetts Historical Society is supported, as it has been since 1791, by a rigidly limited body of semihonorary members, its resources are freely available to any qualified scholar, irrespective of membership. And through its numerous publications they are in part available to people who never set foot in Boston. The society has published more than 250 volumes in letterpress— Collections , Proceedings , and special series; it pioneered fiftyfive years ago with a series of Photostat Americana , by which hundreds of rare pamphlets, runs of early newspapers, and certain rare books and manuscripts were duplicated for subscribing libraries. It has more recently, in cooperation with the National Historical Publications Commission, published a number of important groups of manuscripts on microfilm, as well as editing, for letterpress publication by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, numerous volumes of The Adams Papers .

Other of the older historical societies have, in addition to maintaining important libraries and manuscript collections, made their resources available not only through books but through quarterly journals. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography has been published since 1877 by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania; the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography since 1893 by the Virginia Historical Society; while the New-York Historical Society Quarterly has appeared regularly since 1917. The American Antiquarian Society, whose interests once somewhat resembled those of the Society of Antiquaries of London, has become today a national library of American history, specializing in American imprints and in newspaper collections. One of its remarkable contributions to learning is Early American Imprints , edited by Clifford K. Shipton, which is a microprint edition of every extant book, pamphlet, and broadside printed in what is now the United States from 1639 to the end of the year 1800.