The American Antiquarian Society – Orientation Film

The American Antiquarian Society – Orientation Film


[Scott Casper] A
thoughtful nation needs to understand its past,
how people actually lived. What they knew, what they
read, what they thought. Without a place like the
American Antiquarian Society that’s devoted to the
collection, the preservation and the dissemination of exactly
that, we would be far poorer. We would know far less
of about our past. We’d be forced to rely on
slogans and generalities, rather than being able
to immerse ourselves in the stuff of that past. [Jill Lepore] The American
Antiquarian Society specializes in the history of books and
newspapers and magazines, and ideas and how
they swirled about. The printed page
creates culture, represents culture,
preserves culture. How we communicate
with one another as a people is what the
American Antiquarian Society specializes in. So for American letters, there
really is no better place. [David McCullough] When I walk into the reading room
I feel I’m at home. It’s a privilege to be there,
but it’s also a huge pleasure. And just the way the
tables are, and the light. It’s beautifully lit. And that wonderful feeling of
the architecture around you. It is a national treasure house. [Narration] For 200 years, the American Antiquarian
Society has collected, preserved and shared the printed
documents of North America, from the first European
settlement through the end of
Reconstruction. It is both research
library and learned society, dedicated to the study of pre-twentieth century
American history and culture. [Nathaniel Philbrick]
My research ranges from Colonial history to
the Battle Little Big Horn. There is quite a
range of things. And what has always impressed
me with each new book I work on here at the Antiquarian
Society is the range that is here. There really isn’t a place
that has so much in one place as the American Antiquarian
Society. [Narration] The Society
collection lives on 25 miles of shelves in Antiquarian Hall
in Worcester, Massachusetts. There are more than
4 million items, including 60,000 imprints
created before 1821. This collection is the
largest of its kind, and features rare treasures: the
first bible printed in country, the only known copy of the
first modern novel printed in North America, and, in fact,
the very first book printed in North America: The Whole
Booke of Psalms printed in Cambridge, Massachusetts
in 1640. The Society was founded
in Worcester in 1812. [William Reese] This
institution was begun by Isaiah Thomas,
an American printer. He was one of the
primary patriot printers. He came to Worcester during
the American Revolution when his political beliefs
caused him to flee Boston. When he founded the American
Antiquarian Society his goal was to preserve the printed heritage
of the American colonies that had become the
United States. He knew what the
printed word could do. He understood that words
were what had built America as much as anything. [Narration] Isaiah Thomas
built a personal library of 7,000 books, and collected
hundreds of newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides. These formed the basis of
the Society’s collection, which for 200 years
has continued to grow. [William Reese] The Antiquarian
Society had a whole series of collectors. A wonderful example is
man named Waldo Lincoln. He was always thinking about
what he could acquire for AAS, no matter where he went. He used to go to the Caribbean
on vacation, in the period around the end of the 19th and
beginning of the 20th century. Instead of going around as a
tourist he would get off every island and see what
he could find. He whole runs of newspaper
back to A.A.S. It’s that kind of continuous collecting that
slowly build up the layers of material that make up the
Antiquarian Society collection. [Narration] As each item is
acquired, it is catalogued on a robust computerized
system accessible through the Society’s website. Digital copies of many
holdings give scholars around the world access to texts
and images in the collection. Nothing is discarded – even
when a digital copy exists. The originals are repaired as
needed in the conservation lab and preserved on
site in Worcester. [William Fowler] The society
has a passion for gathering and when I say gathering, not only materials
but people as well . [Narration] This gathering
takes place in many settings. There are public exhibitions
and events, special programs for elementary and
high school teachers. There are ongoing scholarly
programs, and fellowships that support the work of academic researchers,
artists and writers. [William Fowler] We
come as a community with a mutual interest. No matter where we are coming
from, they have a capacity here to support us in
the work that we do. [Honorée Jeffers] I came to
the American Antiquarian Society to do research on
Phillis Wheatley, who’s the first African
American to publish a book. Even though I read all of
Phyllis Wheatley’s poems online, it’s still not the same as touching the actual
first edition book and its still not the
same as seeing a copy of poem written in
her own writing. [David McCullough]
History is human. History is about people. And it’s through objects,
written documents, scraps and treasured
volumes of the past that you can often connect
most directly to the human side of those characters who once
were just as real as we are. [Honorée Jeffers]
This is her book. And this is what happened
the first time I touched it. I got very emotional
just thinking about her. She’s so dignified,
and lady-like and neat. People thought that people of African descent
couldn’t be this, and there she is
proving everybody wrong. [David McCullough] I think one
of the lessons of history is that very little of consequence
is ever accomplished alone. The experience of working
at the Society reinforces that feeling for me every time. All these good people helping
me to see the importance of treasures in their
collection. They can also give you insights that you might never
ever had on your own. [Ilyon Woo] They don’t
just give you answers, they ask you questions and those
questions themselves can take you in so many new
unexpected ways. [Scott Casper] The American
Antiquarian Society is much than just a bunch of books with scholars here coming
and looking at them. It’s really a window for all
Americans into America’s past. It is a treasure
trove of Americana. [Narration] The society holds about 1500 historical
manuscript collections, along with 6000 prints
and early photographs. There are 70,000
pieces of sheet music. There are train schedules
and valentines, prayer books and advertisements,
portraits and caricatures, postcards and playing cards. [Jill Lepore] One of my
favorite objects in all of American history
is this board game. It’s called “The
Checkered Game of Life.” It was invented by
Milton Bradley in 1860. It reveals to you a whole
different world of how people in the 19th century thought
about the course of life. Where we begin, where we end,
what our journey is all about. You can read in this
simple object, that story. [David McCullough] Who would who
would we be without our story? The pull of history is the
enjoyment of those stories. Why would we want to limit
our experience on earth to the little bit of biological
time that we’re allotted, but we can have the whole reach of the human experience
through history? [Honorée Jeffers] You
need to have the place that does not allow
us to have amnesia about what this country is. The good the bad and
everything in between. The narrative can change. Each generation someone thinks
well this is what is important, or this is what is important. But the documents don’t
change, and we need to be able to have these materials
so that we can come and we can see what
the country was. [William Reese] An object
can sit for 200 hundred years and nobody can know
why it’s needed. No scholar can put it in
context, until that moment when that piece of paper tells
a story, provides a connection. You never know when some
scholar is going to need that single connective
piece, that’s going to make the whole
story fall into place. That’s why places like this
exist, and that why places like this are precious.

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