Collection Development Policy

The American Antiquarian Society intentionally and strategically builds collections that foster connections between people and original source material, cultivating a deeper understanding of North America’s histories, stories, and cultures through the turn of the twentieth century. Material selections for the collections are guided and informed by the collection development policy, which has evolved over the Society’s 200+ year history.  

 The AAS Collection Development Policy is a tool designed to ground and support the efforts of the collection development team in expanding and stewarding the Society’s vast material and digital holdings. This policy informs decision making, guides priority setting, deepens understanding of collections use and audiences, and connects collections to AAS’s strategic plan (2022-27) and Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) initiatives. 

Several guiding values and principles underpin the Society’s priorities for collecting and the spirit in which curators undertake their work. Curators aim toward comprehensiveness within the constraints of a focused collecting scope and available resources, and they seek to represent accurately the range of people, groups, languages, and technologies within the scope. Preservation of the original remains a priority as AAS historically has maintained original materials as touchstones for future generations. Curators proceed with humility, because future methods and uses of historical materials cannot be known, anticipated, or controlled. They are openminded, considering different perspectives, reviewing processes, and implementing change as needed. They bear in mind the humanity behind each item, whose creators and compilers must also be remembered and recognized. 

In addition to establishing priorities for curators, the Collection Development Policy informs cataloging, conservation, digitization, and programming. Across departments, AAS staff members practice informed stewardship and strategic deployment of resources, including time, people, materials, and money. They seek to create meaningful access, ensuring collections are available in ways that enable multiple audiences to find and use them.  


The American Antiquarian Society’s collections of printed, handwritten, and visual primary sources - and their digitized versions - are invaluable for the study of North America from colonization through the turn of the twentieth century. Materials printed in what became the United States, Native American tribal nations, and the Caribbean islands are especially well represented; those from present-day Canada, Mexico, and Central America are collected less comprehensively. Formats include books and pamphlets (with a specialization in children’s literature), graphic arts (prints, ephemera, photographs, etc.), manuscripts (including AAS’s own archive), and serials (newspapers and periodicals). Notably, the Society maintains and continues to build the preeminent collection of record of and about early American printing in what would become the United States, including related manuscript collections. 

AAS’s collections are capacious and cover every subject that falls within the geographic, temporal, and formal scope. Historically, this breadth can be attributed somewhat to voracious collecting practices, more than to an intention to represent all the communities that comprised the United States. Because what was published, saved, and amassed (by collectors and dealers) in earlier eras tended to privilege works produced by those who were literate and possessed access to the means and outlets of printing and publishing, even a catholic approach to institutional collecting was likely to overemphasize such work. 

Today, in addition to maintaining the historical emphasis on breadth, AAS curators actively seek to elucidate the lived experiences, voices, and material productions of people who were not prioritized in, and were consequently underrepresented by, previous collecting practices. Curators seek materials that represent perspectives of people with African, Asian, Indigenous, Latinx, Middle Eastern and mixed ancestry or ethnicity, people of all religious or spiritual traditions, people with physical or mental health difference, people whose gender identity or expression was not conventional in their time, people who were very young or very old, and people who were poor, indigent, or working class. Curators pay particular attention to creators (authors, publishers, printers, illustrators, photographers, musicians, artists, bookbinders) as well as to those who owned, annotated, and collected printed and manuscript materials. 

Exceptions & Secondary Resources: Specific curatorial departments’ collecting guidelines detail any exceptions to this general collecting scope. A few areas of specialized collecting extend into the early twentieth century, either to address an earlier lack of access to printing or not to arbitrarily cut off a larger story mid-stream. AAS may sometimes collect, but does not prioritize, items printed outside AAS’s geographic scope, but with content about it. AAS may collect multiple variant copies of the same edition or issue if the​se​ examples have annotations, wrappers, bindings​ that would help​ to understand better the publishing history of the title. AAS also maintains a collection of secondary sources including monographs, periodicals, and AAS digital databases (or ones with complimentary access) to support the primary collections. 

How AAS Builds Collections  

Responsibly stewarding a collection that has been built over centuries means that although the actions of one individual will only ever be a small link in a chain, they can have significant impacts over time. Every decision made to acquire one item means another cannot be acquired. Understanding the context in which collection development decisions are made is essential for accountability.  

AAS collection development decisions must always attempt to understand the collecting practices of the past, respond to the needs of the present, and (to the extent that it is possible) anticipate future directions. Decision-making factors include:  

Research value – Can multiple researchers with diverse projects use this? How significant and/or unique is the content?  

Relationship – How does this relate to other collections at AAS?  

Rarity – Are the contents preserved at another institution or in another form? How likely is it to come up for sale again? 

Responsiveness – What is unique to this collecting moment? What might be undervalued in the current market? What is the most effective response to the needs and opportunities of the moment?  


Ethical Obligations  

Stewardship: Collection development is not just about accumulating; the institution has a responsibility to preserve and make accessible both new and existing collection materials. Total stewardship demands that AAS assess its ability to care for items before adding ​them ​to collections. ​Stewardship​ includes describing materials appropriately, ensuring discoverability through cataloging, or other finding aids, and providing for their physical security. This means also considering conservation needs, housing, and storage/space requirements when evaluating a potential acquisition.  

Donor restricted funds: AAS purchases collection materials using both gift funds and funds designated for acquisitions drawn annually from its endowment. Some funds carry additional restrictions established by donors at the time of funding. It is the ethical obligation of the Society to uphold these donor-specified parameters. If the Society is unable to meet these requirements due to market trends or shifts in availability of materials, it may request from the original donor or living descendants that the parameters be changed or expanded.  

Provenance and replevin processes: Curators strive to acquire items with known and traceable provenance to avoid purchasing materials or accepting gifts acquired by theft or other illicit means. Curators will monitor existing resources maintained by the FBI, ABAA, etc., which focus on criminal activities in the rare book and antiquarian trades. If it is determined that compromised materials have been offered or donated, AAS will seek guidance from and cooperate with law enforcement officials.  

Conflicts of interest: From the ACRL Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians, 2020 rev.  

Appraisals: Due to the potential conflict of interest, monetary appraisal of incoming materials by AAS staff is prohibited in accordance with IRS regulations. If a vendor/donor solicits recommendations for a reputable appraiser from a staff member, a minimum of two names will be provided.  

Financial interest: No AAS staff member shall recommend any materials for purchase in which they have any undisclosed personal financial interest.  

Personal collecting: AAS staff should conduct their personal collecting in a manner that avoids impropriety or the appearance thereof, in accordance with the personal collecting policy outlined in the AAS staff handbook.  

Pass-through conflicts: In most cases, the American Antiquarian Society does not deaccession any material received as a gift until at least three years have passed from the date of receipt to avoid pass-through conflicts.  

Costs and Considerations  

All acquisitions have associated costs that come in a variety of formats: money, time, energy, space, supplies, etc. AAS staff must assess the costs before adding new materials or expanding existing collections.  

Determining & Selecting: Curatorial staff use clear departmental collection criteria, follow long-established patterns of collecting, and directly engage and communicate with dealers and collectors to facilitate acquisitions that align with institutional mission and goals. Curators carefully follow funding and allocation protocols to best allocate financial resources and stay within budget for purchases. While gifts may not carry purchase costs, they do incur processing and stewardship costs and so must be assessed and given the same consideration as purchases before they are accepted. For help with assessment of potential acquisitions, AAS staff may turn to other experts, including community members, or seek out specialists.  

Relationship Building: Ethical relationships are built by cultivating connections between staff, members, dealers, collectors, fellows, local communities, and​ ​populations and institutions underserved by AAS in the past (people of color, community colleges, HBCUs, tribal nations, etc.). Meeting people where they are, putting time into building these relationships, and demonstrating an enduring commitment to the community are crucial. Showing up is essential. AAS staff travel to be present at smaller book fairs as well as at major book fairs in New York, California, or Boston.  

Supporting acquisitions th​r​ough relationship cultivation must be strategically prioritized and appropriately sustained. Diversifying the sources of AAS’s acquisitions as well as their contents may incur additional costs. AAS staff prioritizes purchasing from minority- or women-owned businesses and, whenever possible, sources current publications from local book sellers rather than vast internet-based enterprises. The price of a single volume might be slightly higher, but it comes with a connection to an individual or institution that may prove invaluable.  

Related Documents   

The specificities of the acquisitions and collection development processes, as well as the relevant state and federal regulations to which the Society adheres, may change over time. Current practices of the acquisitions department are detailed in acquisitions policies, including deaccessioning policy (approved by Council, April 21, 2023) and gift acceptance policy and exceptions to same (approved by Council, April 21, 2023). Current curatorial practices are recorded in internal Collections Management scope notes, which include specific notes for each curatorial area.    

-Approved by the AAS Council, January 19, 2024