Monday, June 01, 2009

Book Review: "The MHS: A Bicentennial History"

[Note: Since I work there, I probably shouldn't be "reviewing" a book about the Society. But since it covers a period long before I came, I feel alright in commenting on it as a work. Consider this full disclosure.]

Every venerable organization should have a bicentennial history, and Louis Leonard Tucker's The Massachusetts Historical Society: A Bicentennial History, 1791-1991 (The Society, 1995) fills this niche ably for the MHS. Tucker provides a broad narrative survey of the first two centuries of the Society's existence, drawing on the published Proceedings and the vast unpublished organizational archives (as well as various outside books, articles, and manuscript collections). He chronicles the Society through good times and bad, recounting the changes and continuities which characterize the life of any longstanding institution.

Through biographical sketches of the principal leaders and staff members who have served the MHS over the course of its first centuries, plus anecdotes (some very humorous), and reports of organizational and financial activities, Tucker offers a (mostly) unvarnished examination of the Society's inner workings and public outreach. As an introduction to the subject, no better entry point has been published.

Useful appendices to the text list all members of the MHS from 1791 through 1991, as well as those who served in leadership and major staff capacities. This section of the book I use regularly, but until now I had not sat down and read the narrative chapters. These were worth the wait, and offered much new perspective about those who came before.