Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Book Review: "In Pursuit of a Vision"

For the second installment in my review series of the American Antiquarian Society's bicentennial publications (see this post for the previous review) I turned my attentions to In Pursuit of a Vision: Two Centuries of Collecting at the American Antiquarian Society, the sumptuous and thorough catalogue published to accompany this year's exhibition at the Grolier Club.

As Ellen Dunlap notes in her preface, there were many different shapes a bicentennial exhibition for the American Antiquarian Society could have taken. They might have gone the route of displaying some of the many exceedingly rare or unique items in the collections ... but they've done that before, in a 1969 Grolier Club exhibition called "A Society's Chief Joys." They might have shown items from the collections grouped broadly by genre, or highlighted specific time periods where the Society's holdings are particularly strong. They might have curated an exhibit to display fruits of the labors of their many research fellows, accompanied by the primary materials which shaped those projects. Instead, they took a somewhat unconventional path, organizing the exhibit and catalogue "as a celebration of the generosity and farsightedness of a few of the many collectors, dealers, librarians, and others who have, each in his or her own way, contributed to the greatness of the Society's library by sending collections our way" (p. 5).

The majority of this catalogue is, thus, devoted to short essays on various collector/donors (brief biographies and discussions of their collecting interests and their involvement with AAS), followed by a selection of exemplar items from their collections now at AAS, or items related in some way to their donations: Isaiah Thomas' manuscript catalogue of his library, for example, or one of the eighty-seven(!) volumes of the library catalogue of Thomas W. Streeter, or working slips from Charles Evans' American Bibliography.

I think this approach worked extremely well, and the curators did an excellent job of choosing points of emphasis. While the Isaiah Thomases and George Brinleys and Thomas W. Streeters are well represented, with this catalogue you'll also meet Lucy and Sarah Chase, who as teachers at freedmen's schools during the Civil War heeded the call of AAS librarian Samuel Foster Haven for items of contemporary interest and collected all sorts of materials, including Confederate imprints, a slave dealer's account book, and more. Charles Henry Taylor, the publisher of the Boston Globe, gave to the AAS important collections relating to American lithography, the book trade, and journalism. The reader comes to understand the canny strategy employed by longtime AAS librarian Clarence Brigham (and others since) of not competing with collectors in specific areas, but instead working with them, building a relationship and a trust with the hope that their collections would eventually find their way to the Antiquarian Society (Wilbur Macey Stone's collection of Isaac Watts' Divine Songs and Donald McKay Frost's extremely important gift of Western Americana are two that stick in my mind from the catalogue).

The final two sections of the catalogue take a slightly different but complementary approach, focusing on the AAS' key role in the field of American bibliography, current priorities in terms of continued collection growth and development, and the many initiatives in which the Society has engaged in order to preserve, protect, and make accessible their vast and hugely important collections.

Throughout, the tone of the catalogue in both the introductory contextual essays and the item descriptions is pitch-perfect. It is a delight to read, and the extremely wide range of materials selected for inclusion adds a nice variety. The design is nicely done, and the many illustrations, all full-color, complement the text extremely well. While not every item is pictured, so many are that several times I was surprised to come across one that wasn't.

A gem of a catalogue, and the best kind too, in that it both serves its purpose as an exhibition guide and also will remain as a handy reference (not to mention a good read) for decades to come.