The Society's manuscript department contains rich resources for the study of American history and culture. Numbering over 1,400 collections and well over a million items, the Society's manuscripts span the years 1613-1930 and are useful to scholars working in a variety of disciplines. The history of AAS's manuscript collecting is varied, although the underlying principle for acquisitions has always been that material should relate to the history of America. As the Society has moved away from the role of general library and museum to that of research library, so too has the gathering of manuscripts become more specialized. Today, manuscripts are actively acquired in four areas of collection strength:

  • American book history
  • New England diaries
  • papers of prominent early New Englanders in the political, religious, and military spheres
  • papers and records of 18th- and 19th-century Central Massachusetts families, voluntary associations, and businesses

Manuscript collections, like their printed counterparts, are generally limited chronologically to the period before 1877. Although the acquisition of manuscripts has become increasingly focused over time, AAS holds important collections in areas beyond those described above. Also in the manuscripts department are the Society's own archives. An excellent account of the Society's acquisition of manuscripts, by William L. Joyce, appears in the Society's Proceedings 89 (1979): 123-52.

Isaiah Thomas' gift of his own papers initiated the Society's acquisition of book trade manuscripts, and today the early American book trades continue to be a central focus of all of the AAS collections. Today, the manuscripts department holds much material valuable for the study of the history of the book in America. Through the years, large and small collections of records of publishing businesses have been acquired, including those of Mathew Carey, Copeland & Day, D.C. Heath, G. & C. Merriam Company, Lee & Shepard, McCarty and Davis, and West, Richardson, & Lord. Booksellers' records, such as those of William Cobbett, Jeremiah Condy, and the Boston Booksellers Association, are also at AAS, as are records of bookbinders like William Merriam, printing press manufacturers such as R. Hoe and Co., and paper manufacturers such as Tileston and Hollingsworth. AAS has records not only of its own library, but also of other library associations such as the South Gardner, Mass. Library Association, the Worcester County Atheneum, the Washington County, N.Y. Farmers and Mechanicks Library, and the Westfield, Indiana Monthly Meeting Library. Related manuscript collections include the Book Trades Collection and the Newspaper and Periodical Receipts Collection.

The Society's extensive collection of diaries offers opportunities for insight into the lives and thoughts of seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century New Englanders. Some of these diaries span a great number of years and volumes, making them of particular interest. Massachusetts diarists include the early New England divines Increase Mather and his son Cotton Mather; silhouette artist Ruth Henshaw Bascom; Salem, Mass. minister William Bentley; teacher and housewife Susan E. Forbes; Westborough, Mass. minister Ebenezer Parkman; printer and AAS founder Isaiah Thomas; and teacher and housewife Caroline Barrett White. There are also diaries of a number of children and young adults, such as Louisa Jane Trumbull, James Ferdinand Fiske, Edmund Quincy Sewall, and the student journals of two young women attending Margaret Fuller's Greene Street school, Mary Ware Allen and Hannah Gale.

Isaiah Thomas' acquisition of the Mather library from Hannah Mather Crocker in 1814 marked the beginning of the Society's commitment to preserving the papers of prominent early New Englanders. This library contained the manuscripts of Richard, Increase, Cotton, and a number of "minor Mathers"; also present were papers of such other notables as the three Thomas Shepards. From that time onward, much other early material has come to the Society.

Virtually all phases of Central Massachusetts history are covered by the Society's manuscript collections, as well as all themes of Massachusetts life. Resources on personal, family, religious, business, political, social educational, early industrial and military life are all available. Included among the Society's substantial holdings of family papers are those of the Brown family of Worcester, an African American family; the Chandler-Ward families of Petersham and Lancaster, the Dewey-Bliss families of Worcester, Williamstown, Northampton, and Royalston; the Parkman family of Westborough, three generations of Worcester Salisburys, the Wards of Shrewsbury, and the Waters family of Millbury.

The Society's collection of voluntary association records complements its other manuscript holdings. Charitable organizations, literary societies, and musical associations were popular eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commitments and diversions, and so the Society's collection of voluntary association records is an important complement to its other manuscript holdings.

There is manuscript material at the Society valuable for research in other areas as well. There are several collections of manuscript music, strengthened by an accession received in 1983 from Mrs. Irving Lowens. The preeminent collections of James Fenimore Cooper's printed works at AAS are complemented by eight boxes of his papers received in 1990 from the estate of Paul Fenimore Cooper, Jr. Included are literary manuscripts, business and legal papers, and correspondence with family, friends, and publishers. AAS also has a large archive of research material on Cooper compiled by James Franklin Beard, Jr.

From the outset, the Society was concerned with every aspect of America's history, and archaeology was a major interest of early members. Although the artifacts that accumulated during the nineteenth century have long since been transferred to other institutions, several manuscript collections (and the Society's own archives) reflect this interest in archaeology.

Approximately three hundred scrapbooks, most dating from the second half of the nineteenth century, contain material gathered on a wide variety of subjects. Notable are scrapbooks of publisher Joel Munsell, temperance lecturer John Bartholomew Gough, and publisher Clarence Winthrop Bowen. Additionally, a number of volumes deal with the theater in Boston and Worcester. Many of the scrapbooks are listed in the Society's General Catalog; a checklist is also available. The scrapbooks collection is in the process of being integrated with the manuscripts collection, and records for them will be created in the online catalog.

Finally, there is a Miscellaneous Manuscripts collection. Arranged alphabetically by personal name or place name, it consists, for the most part, of single items by a wide variety of individuals, businesses, and organizations. Occasionally there are several items by one person, but not enough to warrant making a separate collection. An alphabetical checklist in the library provides access to these manuscripts.

The Society actively seeks additions to its manuscript holdings. Gifts are a vital source of collections, particularly of family papers and diaries. The Nancy and Randall K. Burkett Fund, endowed in 1999 for the purchase of manuscripts, has provided valuable support for expanding the collections. Several other funds, including the Henry F. DePuy Fund, the Harriette Merrifield Forbes Fund, and the John Thomas Lee Fund are designated for both book and manuscript purchases.

Collection Access

There are three main resources for access to the AAS manuscript collections:

Currently, collection-level records for about 1,200 of the Society's manuscript collections (more than eighty per cent) are available in the catalog.

The Catalogue of the Manuscript Collections of the American Antiquarian Society, published in four volumes in 1979 by G.K. Hall, is a printed version of the card catalog produced in the 1970s when the Society's collections were arranged and described under the supervision of William L. Joyce with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Catalogue is available for use in many university and research libraries in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. Records for all collections processed or reprocessed since the Catalogue was published in 1979 can be found in the online catalog. The printed Catalogue is arranged alphabetically, with personal names, geographic names, and topical subject entries interfiled in one sequence. At the beginning of volume one is a list of the subject entries used when processing the collections and a list of the forty-six collections that were item-cataloged (meaning that each manuscript in the collection was described individually). Typically, the following information is provided for each item: collection name, author name, recipient name, date, type of manuscript, place where the manuscript was written, number of pages, and a very brief summary of content. Most of volume four is a chronologically arranged list of materials in the item-cataloged collections.

Manuscript collection descriptions for approximately half of all processed manuscripts are available. If collection description for a collection exists, a "finding aid" link will appear in the "more about this item" area on the right side bar section of the collection's online catalog record. Additional collection descriptions are added online as time permits. Paper copies are filed in binders in the AAS reading room. They often contain useful information that goes beyond the descriptions provided in the online catalog or the printed catalog, and therefore it is essential that readers wishing to use manuscripts consult the collection descriptions before requesting collections. The descriptions contain the following information: collection name, size, location, finding aids, source, biographical information, and content description. If a collection is available on microfilm, that information is stamped on the collection description. Large collections have longer collection descriptions, which often include contents lists. Contents lists itemize collections at the box, folder, or volume level, providing more specific access to the information contained within collections. Handwritten card indexes to the correspondence in several collections not item-cataloged are available in the manuscripts department. When these exist, they are mentioned in the collection descriptions.

Online Resources

Selected portions of the manuscripts collection have been made available online.

Produced in cooperation with Alexander Street Press, Manuscript Women's Letters and Diaries from the American Antiquarian Society brings together 100,000 pages of the personal writings of women of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, displayed as high-quality images of the original manuscripts, semantically indexed and online for the first time. Access in available in the reading room. Offsite access may be purchased from Alexander Street Press.

Transcriptions of the Grant-Burr Family Papers are available to be browsed and searched as pdf files. This collection contains over five hundred letters written between 1827 and 1892. Central to the collection is the correspondence between and to Daniel Grant (1818-1892) and his wife Caroline Burr Grant (1820-1892). The letters of these articulate and well-educated New England families discuss their experiences in westward expansion, early female seminaries, courtship, marriage, childrearing, missionary activity, the California Gold Rush, and the Civil War.

Northern Visions of Race, Region & Reform in the Press and Letters of Freedmen and Freedmen's Teachers in the Civil War Era is an online resource documenting conflicting representations of African-Americans, white Southerners, and reformers during and and immediately after the Civil War. In particular, it looks at the stereotypes popularized in the northern press, and the ways that these depictions were countered—or in some cases, reinforced—in the letters written for northern readers by freedmen's teachers and freedmen themselves. This resource was created by Professor Lucia Knoles of Assumption College working from primary resources at the American Antiquarian Society.

The Journals of Edmund Quincy Sewall Jr. 1837-1840
Thoreau scholars have long been aware of the journal kept in Concord, Massachusetts during a period of seven weeks in 1840 when twelve-year-old Edmund Quincy Junior was attending John and Henry David Thoreau’s Concord Academy and boarding in the Thoreau household. Edmund’s manuscript journal of 1840 was given to the American Antiquarian Society in 1945 but only recently has it become possible to present this diary alongside the three earlier journals Edmund kept between 1837 and 1840 mostly detailing his home life in Scituate, Massachusetts. Together these diaries offer a boy's eye view of what it was like to grow up in a social circle of New England's progressive intellectuals and reformers. ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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