The American Antiquarian Society is almost 200 years old. I guess that’s not entirely shocking, given that “Antiquarian” is in our name, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that when we were founded there were no functional steam-locomotives, no sewing machines, no modern matches. Napoleon was still fighting his way across Europe. Even “The Star-Spangled Banner” had yet to be written.
While I think you’ll agree we look very good for our age, two centuries of continuous collecting has given us a few wrinkles. Not everything is exactly where it started. In fact, the various stages of arrangement and cataloging of our collections provide a complete, if eccentric, history of librarianship and cataloging technologies.
Searching for collection material can feel like an archeological dig through layers of accumulated cataloging. You hit strata from multiple centuries working backwards in time. Level 1: digitized products. Level 2: online records. Level 3: microform. Level 4: a unique cataloging system. Level 5: handwritten card catalogs. Level 6: lists of collection material. Level 7 (and this is the most tenuous of all): the back recesses of a librarian’s mind. As the AAS Librarian reported on October 23, 1829:
The number of volumes now in the library exceeds eight thousand, and these are rendered almost useless from the fact that there are only two or three individuals who are acquainted with their arrangement or contents, and perhaps no one who can at all times find the book called for.
It may sound daunting, but this historical evolution is actually one of my favorite parts of working at AAS. It puts our collections on a human scale, since we are all slowly evolving.
Once you’ve worked here for a while, the weirdness wears off. You don’t have to consciously struggle to remember each unusual term. In fact, it becomes increasingly difficult to recall which words are common parlance, which are specific to “library people,” and which are AAS originals (which as you will see is a category onto itself). Here are some examples off the top of my head, in no particular order.
Things in the AAS Reading Room (other libraries may have these too):
1. Book Snakes (hint: here’s a picture of them in their natural habitat)
2. Trucks (seems like they wouldn’t fit in the building, but have you seen our dome? — it could be the new Thunderdome)
3. Cradles (for those sleepy researchers)
4. Fellows (they’re jolly good)
5. Call Slips
1. Cataloging campers (do they get to sleep over?)
2. Red sleeve (sounds cheerful, if somewhat lacking as a garment)
3. The Buff (which appropriately enough goes in a red sleeve to cover it up)
4. Pink Slip (given the scary recent unemployment figures, it’s not as bad as it sounds)
5. Stacks, Locked Stacks, & Stack D
6. Exit Passes
Most of the foregoing are merely amusing, but other terms can really benefit your research.
AAS Collection Names (most are abbreviations and so pretty easy to figure out, but they sometimes sound funny):
1. Lithf, Lithff, and Lithfff as well as Engrf, Engrff, Engrfff (sounds like a stuttering problem)
2. First Eds
3. Bibs (I thought we weren’t supposed to have food in the library)
4. CS5 (an American version of the MI-5)
5. Classed Collections (where are the gendered collections?)
6. Pams, Misc Pams, Dated Pams (way too many folks named Pam)
7. Dated Books (a bibliophile’s dream)
8. Digital Evans (Why didn’t they ask Digital Evans?, for the Agatha Christie fans among us)
9. Shaw-Shoemaker (which sounded vaguely like a Native American name to me)
Imaginary Places at AAS (my personal favorite, you may come across these figments in the card catalog):
1. First Eds Room
2. Map Room
3. Alcove B, or F, or D
1. The Gutter (get your mind out of there!)
2. Chain Lines (sounds a little scary)
3. Provenance (sadly not the region in France, but almost as cool)
4. Ghosts (a term that seems to haunt the library)
The fascinating stories behind these odd terms will be periodically revealed in posts on Past is Present, as the fancy strikes us. Hopefully, it will strike once a week. Our ultimate goal is a comprehensive AAS Glossary (hey, a girl can dream). While some of the above terms are common to many libraries, our definitions will be sprinkled with a generous dose of AAS history. After all, our 200th birthday is coming up soon so now is a good time to brush up on your AAS trivia to impress your friends and relatives.
To help us reach this goal, we invite our Past is Present readers to join us as co-editors. The OED created a massive linguistic team by harnessing the power of individual readers and so can we! When you think of another good example of an odd library term (from AAS or elsewhere), or if you see something in the lists above you’re particularly curious about, let us know and we’ll try to post on those first.
Better yet, feel free to comment on this post with your own definitions — the snarkier the better! I am confident you all will come up with some truly witty definitions to replace my corny one-liners.