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Catalogs and Arrangement of Collections

The classification scheme used to arrange the American Antiquarian Society's holdings is unique to this library, and reflects both the growth of the collections and the evolution of techniques in providing access to materials. In cataloging and shelving its holdings, the Society distinguishes between its early American imprints and other materials. That distinction is reflected in the existence of two alphabetized card catalogs at AAS, the Imprints Catalog and the General Catalog. In the online catalog, this distinction is not explicit, but users may limit searches by date and place of publication.

Most American materials through 1820 are fully cataloged, although a substantial number of federal and state documents from the first two decades of the nineteenth century remain uncataloged. The greatest portion of AAS holdings before 1821 may be found in the Dated Books, Dated Pamphlets, Almanacs, and Broadsides collections; additional materials are located in the Reserve, First Editions, and Bindings collections, as appropriate. These are not classified collections; that is to say, their arrangement on the shelves is not according to a system based on analysis of the content of the work. The Dated Books, Dated Pamphlets, Bindings, and First Editions collections are arranged by author; the Reserve and Broadsides collections are arranged by date of publication; and Almanacs are shelved according to place of publication.

Most of the Society's holdings for the years 1821-1840 are fully cataloged. Consult the page "collection access" for fuller information on particular collections.

For materials printed after 1840, or printed outside the United States, the picture is more complicated still. There exist at the Society many discrete uncataloged collections, each separately shelved and identified by collection name. Such collections tend to be defined either by the physical format (e.g., broadsides, pamphlets) or by the genre of the material (e.g., canal and railroad reports or trade catalogs). In some cases, checklists serve as finding aids.

For cataloged materials, a classification system, unique to the American Antiquarian Society, was devised by Clifford K. Shipton, then our librarian. Shipton created a number of classes (e.g., Genealogy, Local History, Biography, Printing History) tailored to the Society's holdings and collecting interests. The initial letters assigned to these classes are often derived from the Library of Congress classification system; the resemblance to the LC scheme ends there. The arrangement of materials within each class is dictated by the materials classed there. Biographies, for example, are shelved by the subject of the work, then by author; local histories by state, then by county, city, or town; and the classification for works on religion is divided into sections representing the various denominations reflected in the Society's holdings.

The Society's General Catalog provides access to cataloged materials printed after 1820. (The user of the catalogs must bear in mind, however, that some materials from the 1820s are recorded in the Imprints Catalog, that access to the First Editions collection is provided in the Imprints catalog, and that the Genealogy collection has a catalog unto itself.) It has been observed that a history of cataloging might be written from the cards found in the General Catalog, where handwritten half-cards stand next to (and must be interfiled with) computer-generated cards. Cataloging rules have changed drastically over the years. At AAS, this means that the access provided by the catalog is inconsistent; for some works full access by author, title, series, and subject is available, while for others no more than a single, brief, handwritten entry will be found. At the Antiquarian Society, more than at most libraries, then, the assistance of the readers' services staff in interpreting the catalog is of critical importance to the reader.

- Alan N. Degutis, Head of Cataloging


AAS Online Catalog