The original purpose of the American Antiquarian Society was to collect and preserve materials that illustrated and enlarged knowledge of the history and culture of the Western Hemisphere. In 1968, the Society's Council reaffirmed practices that had evolved over the years and accepted the proposal that our range of collecting would be limited to the territories that became the United States of America and to the former French and English parts of North America from the period of settlement by Europeans through 1876. Within those geographical and chronological limits, the goal is to collect the printed materials necessary to support advanced research in all aspects of the American experience. A formal collection policy was written in 1985. It was revised and updated in 1997.
We specialize in original source materials. Priority is given to American and Canadian printed materials issued before 1821. So far as financial resources allow, acquisitions within this chronology are comprehensive and include almanacs, books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, periodicals, printed ephemera, music, maps, prints, and government documents. Our commitment to the history of print culture requires that we collect all editions in order to provide as complete a record as possible for textual and bibliographical studies.
The collecting policy is more restrictive for imprints dated 1821 through 1876. The amount printed in this period far exceeds that before 1821, and budgetary constraints prevent AAS from collecting exhaustively. In this later period, we strive to make our collections representative rather than comprehensive. However, because of our commitment to the history of printing, we want to acquire all imprints that give evidence of new presses and of the diffusion of print culture.
The Society maintains strong collections of twentieth and twenty-first century materials that relate to the pre-1877 period. We subscribe to currently published periodicals that pertain to the local and national history of the United States, Canada, and the West Indies.
Originally, our mandate was interpreted to include ethnological and archaeological objects and relics of colonial life of the entire Western Hemisphere. We still retain some of these objects that are pertinent to our historical interests: one of Isaiah Thomas's printing presses, colonial furniture (including clocks), and portraits by or of early Americans. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, it was clear that the Society could not continue to collect artifacts as well as printed materials, and most of the objects were transferred to more suitable institutions, such as the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, the Worcester Art Museum, and the Smithsonian Institution.
The mission of the Society—to build a premier research library and to make the collections available to those who seek to learn about and to interpret the past—has remained constant throughout our history. Isaiah Thomas set us on a course from which we have not deviated: to focus on the history of print culture in North America. We collect imprints not only because they are carriers of ideas, but also because they are cultural artifacts. We are convinced that the development of printing throughout North America is one the principal agents through which an American culture developed.