When Times are Tough, AAS Gets Going . . . on Transcription!

Staff at AAS have been sad and frustrated about Covid-19’s effects on our researchers, fellows, and fellow cultural institutions. Despite this hardship, we’ve been able to find some joy in our days and to feel connected to the collections we love by working on a staff-wide transcription of the first AAS donation book.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the first donation book, it includes a list of all of the Society’s acquisitions between 1813 and 1829. Most of items in the list are written in our founder Isaiah Thomas’ own hand. It includes many artifacts from indigenous populations that were deaccessioned over the years, as well as all of the books, pamphlets, and manuscripts that we received during that period.

We started working on this project not long after we all began working virtually from home. The transcription project was intended to give staff something to work on in gaps between other tasks and help them feel connected both to each other and to the collections from which we are separated. And what better way to feel connected to the collections than to work with this amazing foundational document!

Two staff members transcribe each page of the donation book and, when the project is complete, we will reconcile the two transcriptions and produce one final, solid transcription. Once completed, we will post these transcriptions online. Digital images of the donation book are already available online here. Already 15 staff members have worked on the project, completing 120 pages from the donation book (that’s 240 pages of transcription!)

What is our staff finding so interesting about this book? Lisa Sutter, one of our acquisitions assistants, noticed a reference to an account of a mermaid whose existence was verified by three people. In a donation of Mather family material, Lisa also found a story about a woman who swallowed two bullets that eventually emerged from her flesh. (Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was known for his studies of medicine and wrote about this story.)  Curator of Children’s Literature, Laura Wasowicz, was struck when one of the pages she was transcribing listed of a book that she had cataloged not too long ago, Porny’s Syllabaire Francois (1810), and its donor, Henry H. Cunningham of Montreal.

Researchers at AAS have also found the donation book endlessly interesting, and we consider it to be one of the staples of research at AAS. Peter Onuf, a recent Distinguished Scholar in Residence, used the donation book to study early American antiquarianism; Megan Walsh, a past NEH fellow, has used the donation book to understand early woman donors and collectors; and Christine DeLucia, another past NEH fellow, has used the donation book to understand the collection and ultimate deaccessioning of early American indigenous artifacts. We can’t predict  how this transcription will be used in the future, but we are excited about the possibilities!

On the first page of the donation book Thomas lists several items: the donation book itself; a Chinese passport, which we recovered in the collections when working on the miscellaneous manuscripts rehousing project a few years ago; and a palm leaf from Malaya with writing from the Malayan leader at the time. Perhaps most importantly, Isaiah Thomas’ library appears as the first item in the donation book. Thomas conveyed his library to AAS with a deed of conveyance that appears in the back of his own personal manuscript library catalogue. The entry appears so humble, but, when our former director Marcus McCorison transcribed Thomas’ personal library catalogue, it came to almost 700 pages of transcription. This generosity combined with humility is what made Thomas such a good leader of the Society.

One can also look to our current leader, AAS President Ellen Dunlap, who despite being unbelievably busy during this time of crisis, has signed up for and completed 15 pages of transcription. She has been very supportive of this project which is helping the staff to look back at and connect with our early history and with the library collections. She is giving so much to the library and staff on the verge of her retirement just as Thomas gave everything he treasured to AAS at our founding.

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