Saturday, December 01, 2012

Book Review: "The American Antiquarian Society, 1812-2012"

The year 2012 marks the bicentennial anniversary of the establishment of the American Antiquarian Society, and this happy milestone has been marked by a series of scholarly lectures and conferences, gifts and acquisitions, a major exhibition at the Grolier Club, a new promotional video, a grand gala, and even some commemorative (and delicious) chocolate coins. The Society also has released three anniversary-related publications as part of the celebrations, and I'll be posting reviews of all three in the coming weeks.

Philip F. Gura's The American Antiquarian Society, 1812–2012:  A Bicentennial History (distributed by Oak Knoll Press) is the first of the trio I'll consider here. Gura, commissioned by the Society for the task back in 2003, has done an admirable job of it: this is a well-researched and thorough account of the Society from its earliest days right through the bicentennial year. The goal of the book, as expressed in the preface, was an "intellectual history that emphasizes the development of the Society as a whole—its library, its institutional structure, its scholarly and bibliographical initiatives—in a constantly changing cultural context" (xii), and that benchmark has been met and exceeded. Gura, whose previous works include a history of American transcendentalism, a biography of Jonathan Edwards, and several books on the history of American music, clearly enjoyed the research and writing process for this history, and that enjoyment is evident throughout.

Following the short preface, the book is divided into eight chapters, each corresponding to a particular leadership period in the Society's history. The AAS has been blessed with a line of energetic, forward-thinking leaders who have understood and embraced the fundamental vision of the Society and worked tirelessly to make that vision into a reality even as the world has changed in ways that are probably beyond even Isaiah Thomas' wildest flights of fancy. To complement those leaders, the AAS has also been fortunate enough to have had the generous support of an active oversight body (currently called the Council). The ways in which the staff and Council have worked together over the decades to shape, protect, and provide for the fulfillment of the Society's mission is a major theme for Gura, and he manages to pull it off without the narrative devolving too far into "inside baseball" arcana.

That said, the most casual of readers may not find themselves entirely interested in some parts of this book, particularly in the final chapters. While I found the details of microform reproduction negotiations, building renovations, and staff comings and goings perfectly fascinating reading, others may not be so inclined. But there are still wonderful nuggets in the final chapters: Gura's treatment of Marcus McCorison's willingness to purchase necessary items regardless of how much of the acquisitions budget had already been spent is a delight (and looking back, is there any second-guessing now of those purchases? Being one of those who subscribes to the notion that you usually only regret the book you didn't buy rather than the one you did, I very much suspect not). And given the difficulties inherent in describing the very recent history of an institution, Gura's done a remarkable job covering the strategies to bring the Society into the digital era and the outreach efforts that have characterized the AAS in recent years.

It is the opening chapters where this book truly shines, though. Isaiah Thomas' efforts to establish, equip, and support the Society through its tenuous early decades, Christopher Columbus Baldwin's ceaseless acquisitiveness and devotion to the place, and Samuel Foster Haven's long service and careful attention, are what enabled the AAS to get off the ground, to successfully make a place for itself as a relevant institutional repository for the stuff of American history, from books to ballad sheets, newspapers to antiquities. Gura captures their stories extremely well, and the section on Baldwin was particularly enjoyable, which makes me all the more excited to read one of the other AAS bicentennial publications, an edition of Baldwin's diaries). As with many similar institutions, the focus has narrowed a bit over the years (most of the artifacts and historical curiosities have found other homes), but the AAS has remained, as Thomas envisioned it, a repository for the print culture of America, broadly conceived and carefully maintained. From the beginning the AAS and its leaders have promulgated an explicit concern for the potential scholarly interests of future generations, and the accompanying attention not just to important books but also to the ephemeral material that so often has not been an important part of institutional collections, is what set (and in many ways continues to distinguish) the Society from its counterparts. As Gura writes in his preface, Thomas and those who have come after him "understood that, to know the past as well as we can, we cannot study just great books by famous people but have to work with any and all the traces that we can find, often in the most ephemeral materials, using our imagination to allow light to fall on the shattered bits of mirror so that they reflect the surrounding age" (xv).

I could go on: there are fascinating sections here about the longstanding, mostly-friendly rivalry between the AAS and the Massachusetts Historical Society (whose president, giving an address at the laying of the cornerstone of the AAS' current home in 1909, used the occasion to urge the AAS, essentially, to back off by narrowing its collecting focus to central Massachusetts), while the accounts of the Society's involvement in the major works of American bibliography (Evans, Sabin, Shaw/Shoemaker, Brigham, Wright, &c.) show just how important a role the institution has played (and continues to play) in the field of American bibliography and, more recently, book history.

A few typographical errors made their way into the book, but thankfully they do little to detract from the text, and are mostly extremely minor (Isaiah Thomas read the Declaration of Independence in Worcester on 14 July, 1776, not 24 July, for example). The book's typeface is one of my favorites, and the many images are well-chosen and integrated into the text. The notes are thorough and the index useful.

Of course times are not always good at institutions like AAS, and the Society has weathered its share of tight budgets, cramped physical spaces, and various other trials and tribulations over its two centuries. They're part of Gura's book too. But through it all, AAS has persevered, and its collections and those responsible for their care, access, and dissemination remain a vital part of the American intellectual community. May it be so for another two hundred years and more.