The American Antiquarian Society is this nation's chief repository for early American newspapers, and a significant portion of research done at the Society draws upon the Society's collection. The primary goal for the collection is to acquire, preserve, and make available for research newspapers published in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the United States, Canada, and the English-speaking West Indies. To this end, the Society adds, through gift and purchase, an average of 3,000 issues a year to its holdings. Building on Isaiah Thomas's gift in 1812 of 382 titles in 551 volumes, the Society has accumulated over 15,000 newspaper titles in 20,000 volumes. Today, AAS has more than two million issues on five miles of shelving. The collection is preserved in protective folders and boxes in a climate- controlled environment. In 1973, to assure the preservation and usefulness of its newspaper holdings, the Society established the position of curator of newspapers and serials.
The collection contains newspapers from all fifty states and the District of Columbia, the Canadian provinces, the West Indies, and Great Britain. British newspapers are retained through the Revolutionary War period.
The Newspaper Cataloging Manual of the Library of Congress defines a newspaper as a serial publication designed to be a primary source of written information on current events connected with public affairs, either local, national, or international, not limited to a specific subject matter. The Society, however, collects every kind of newspaper, those that fit the definition strictly, those that are really periodicals in newspaper format, such as college, literary, religious, or temperance newspapers, and those that do not seem to fit either category, including advertising, campaign, church fair, or price-current newspapers. Geographically the collection encompasses most areas on the North American continent and the nearby islands.
Wallpaper newspapers form an unusual group in the Society's holdings. (Le courrier des opelousas is pictured to the left.) These were newspapers printed on the obverse of wallpaper samples because of the paper shortage in the southern states during the Civil War. The Society has three copies, each on different wallpaper, of the most famous of these newspapers, the Daily Citizen from Vicksburg, Mississippi, for July 2 and 4, 1863. It holds twenty-two of the thirty-two titles listed by Clarence Brigham in his essay on the subject in Bibliographical Essays: A tribute to Wilberforce Eames (Cambridge, Mass., 1924).
The newspaper collection of the Society has grown and continues to grow through purchases, particularly of pre-1821 issues and of issues from the western states for which its holdings are weak, as well as through gifts from individuals and from institutions. Many of the Louisiana newspapers came from Edward Larocque Tinker, while Waldo Lincoln brought together the West Indian issues. The Society's Rowell collection was assembled over a number of years. G.P. Rowell, noted for his annual newspaper directories, organized an exhibition of all extant newspapers in the United States for the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876. Discards from the exhibition found their way into the col- lections of the Chicago Historical Society. In 1915, that Society donated the issues from the eastern states to AAS, and in 1974 it completed the gift with all its Rowell newspapers except for those from Illinois and Indiana. After World War II, New England institutions sent hundreds of newspapers to the Society. Beginning in 1973, the Society has from time to time circulated to historical societies, public libraries, and academic institutions a request for those newspapers they could not maintain.
Providing bibliographical control of and access to its research materials has been a major activity of the Society throughout its history. This has been as true for newspapers as for any other group of materials, from Thomas's catalog of his gift to the participation by AAS in the United States Newspaper Program, underwritten by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Because the collections of the Society are shelved in areas closed to the public, researchers gain access to them through the card catalog, bibliographical tools, and terminals linked to national databases. The catalog provides holdings information rather than bibliographical descriptions. It is divided into pre- 1821 and post-1820 sections, with each section arranged alphabetically by state, town, and title. The first section contains issue-by-issue records of the Society's early holdings. A major project in process is the collating of the post-1820 newspapers to provide similar information for the second section of the catalog. Because of new acquisitions and cataloging, the card catalog will remain the most up-to-date guide to the Society's holdings.
As a participant in the United States Newspaper Program, the Society entered bibliographical and holdings records for 14,000 of its pre-1877 American titles into the national database, OCLC. With the completion of this project, AAS continues to have access to these records through RLIN.
The lack of indexes to early American newspapers often hampers research. Brigham's Bibliography contains a title index and is complemented by Edward Connery Lathem's Chronological Tables of American Newspapers, 1690-1820, (Worcester, 1972). Avis G. Clark's typescript "An Alphabetical Index to the Titles in American Newspapers, 1821-1936" is a useful tool for nineteenth-century research. The few subject indexes to eighteenth- and nineteenth- century newspapers include Lester Cappon's Virginia Gazette Index (Williamsburg, Virginia, 1930) and the WPA index to the Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Massachusetts (Boston, Mass., 1939). In general, newspaper indexes are genealogical in nature, such as the Index of Obituaries in Boston Newspapers, 1704-1800, compiled by the Boston Athenaeum (Boston, 1968) and the "Index to Marriages and Deaths in the Columbian Centinel," a typescript at the Society. Indexes in the Society's own collections are listed in the "Checklist of Newspaper Indexes in the American Antiquarian Society."
Because the Society's primary interest is in original materials, it seldom purchases newspapers on microfilm, and films titles from its own collection only on request from a patron. As part of its cooperation with Readex Microprint Corporation, however, the Society has acquired a complete set of the Readex Early American Newspaper Series on microcard and microfilm. The small collection of microfilm accumulated through the years includes two Worcester titles, The Massachusetts Spy, 1821-1904, and The Aegis, 1801-97. To preserve originals, AAS has also acquired facsimile reprints of titles such as The Boston News- Letter, The Newport Mercury, and The New-York Gazette, among others.
Although the newspaper collection of the Society is heavily used, historians and researchers have yet to realize its full potential. As Clarence Brigham noted in his Bibliography and History of American Newspapers, "If all the printed sources of history for a certain century or decade had to be destroyed to save one, that which could be chosen with the greatest value to posterity would be a file of an important newspaper."
- Joyce A. Tracy, former Curator of Newspapers and Periodicals; updated by Vincent Golden, Curator of Newspapers and Periodicals