About AAS > History and Activities


From the beginning, the preservation of the printed and manuscript record of the United States has always been an explicit goal of the American Antiquarian Society. The founders of the Society recognized that, without ensuring the preservation of its collection, the acquisition and cataloging of those collections would be wasted effort. That they took preservation seriously is evident in the motto they adopted for the Society, which proclaims that the collection "cannot be harmed by the devastation of war nor the ravages of time."

The role of the conservation department at AAS is to ensure the continued existence of the Society's collections. The department's activities fall into two broad categories: preservation and conservation. The term preservation includes all activities aimed at extending the life of the physical or intellectual content of the material, such as climate control, use of acid-/ lignin-free storage materials, and reformatting. Conservation, one aspect of preservation, denotes specific treatment of individual items in order to maintain their present condition.

The earliest efforts at preserving the collection were to house it in a substantial building in a geographically protected location. In 1819, Isaiah Thomas contracted for the erection of a brick building to provide protection from fire. When additions to that building were proposed in 1831, his will required that the roof sections be covered with slate or zinc, that the floors be covered with brick or tile, and that communication between the main building and the addition be by means of an iron door.

The current building, built in 1910 and the third the Society has occupied, had air conditioning and humidification equipment installed in the stack area in 1963. Ten years later, the system was expanded and upgraded, the roof was more heavily insulated, and the windows were triple glazed with ultraviolet filtering Plexiglas. These changes were instituted to further stabilize temperature and humidity, reduce harmful radiation from the sun, and add to building security. In 1972 an addition was made to the 1910 building to create space for a manuscript room, fellows' carrels, and offices.

Now, in 2002, the Society has again completed a major construction, adding a 12,000 square foot state-of-the-art book stack wing to the library, to ensure the preservation of its core collections. All pre-1821 books and newspapers, and the entire graphic arts and manuscripts collections, have been transferred to this new vault. In conjunction with this construction project, the existing stacks have been equipped with a sprinkler system for fire protection.

Conservation activity in the first 170 years of the Society's existence consisted largely of binding newspapers and periodicals. This was done commercially until 1912, when Clarence Brigham hired an English-trained binder, Horace Phillimore, to establish an in-house bindery. Mr. Phillimore worked in the library's bindery for more than forty years, retiring in 1954. The transition from bindery to conservation laboratory was a gradual one, but, with the arrival of Marcus A. McCorison in 1960, the staff became increasingly concerned with accepted practices that had come to be seen as damaging, rather than protecting, the research materials. Practice in the bindery shifted from binding periodicals to washing, deacidifying and mending paper, as well as using archivally sound materials to repair and house the fragile volumes in the Society's collection. Kenneth Desautels, and later Richard Baker and Babette Gehnrich, managed the department after Horace Phillimore's retirement, and all significantly contributed to the steady transition from bindery to conservation lab. A new space was set up in 1972, and the conservation department was created with preservation as its sole responsibility.

The Society currently pursues preservation in a number of ways. The first priority is control of the environment. The library building and its internal environment represent the first line of defense against damage to the collection. A structurally sound brick building protects the collection from water or fire damage. Since heat, light, moisture, and air pollutants accelerate the chemical deterioration of library materials, causing premature aging, these are also controlled and continuously monitored.

The second priority of preservation activity at AAS falls under the heading collection maintenance. An important component of collection maintenance is the proper selection of storage materials. Since paper manufacturing processes changed in the 1860s, acidity has been a major source of cellulose degradation. AAS uses special boxes, envelopes, and folders made of acid-/ lignin-free material to house the collection. Also of great importance is the establishment of policies, such as guidelines for the use of library materials in the reading room; the preservation policy, which sets forth the principles of preservation and lists the priorities of the preservation program; and the disaster plan, which provides for recovery from water and fire damage.

Another means of ensuring the long-term preservation of original materials is reformatting. Providing a duplicate copy of a volume in the form of a microfilm, microfiche, digital image or photocopy, will prevent much of the physical damage to the artifact. At AAS, a majority of early American imprints published before 1820 are available on microfiche; many newspapers issued through 1820 are on microfilm. A set of microfiche exists for city directories through 1880. The Society is also digitizing parts of the graphic arts collection, such as the broadsides collection.

The third priority of preservation is the actual conservation of individual items. Since the collections are valuable to researchers not only for their content but also as artifacts providing evidence of the material culture of their times, the Society strives to preserve both the intellectual content and the physical items themselves. The Society has a fully equipped conservation laboratory capable of handling all necessary treatments. At present, the department has a staff of two professional conservators and a temporary, part-time, NEH-funded conservation assistant.

The treatments follow current professional standards. These include the use of materials that will not adversely affect the artifact, reversibility, and proper documentation. Within individual departments, priorities for conservation treatment are established by the library curators and the librarian, who can best assess the need for treatment considering condition, scarcity and frequency of use of a particular item. Treatment decisions are made jointly by the conservator and the appropriate curator.

- Richard C. Baker, former Chief Conservator. Updated by Babette Gehnrich, Chief Conservator

Paper conservation


Conservation Laboratory
The conservation lab


American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC)

Conservation OnLine (CoOL)

Gaylord Preservation

Guild of Book Workers

Northeast Document Conservation Center