Under its generous domeFor those of us who have the privilege and pleasure to work everyday with the remarkable collections of the American Antiquarian Society the past is indeed present. Whether we are selecting new acquisitions, cataloging collections, preparing web exhibits, processing photo requests, conserving materials that have seen better days, planning workshops, editing publications, or assisting researchers in the reading room, we often become immersed in the lives of Americans who lived 150, 250, even 350 years ago. By collecting the books they owned, the newspapers they read, the almanacs they consulted, the letters they exchanged, and the prints they enjoyed, we make it possible for researchers to recreate long-ago happenings, reconstruct conflicts and causes, and reclaim from obscurity individuals whose separate stories can now be woven into the larger narrative of our collective history as a people and a nation.

And while all that sounds lofty and terribly (self-)important, it’s also a lot of fun! Through our Past is Present blog, we hope to share with you some measure of our excitement at acquiring a pamphlet that escaped the collecting grasp of our predecessors, our delight in helping a reader solve a research conundrum, and our amusement with the weirdly wonderful things that turn up in the collections here at AAS on an almost daily basis. Many individuals will be contributing to this blog, but I want here to acknowledge the good work of Diann Benti, Tom Knoles, and Elizabeth Pope in getting it launched and keeping it lively.

I often use the word “generous” is describing the relationships that form among the staff and readers at AAS. It is very common for research discoveries to be shared openly, rather than hoarded in a miserly fashion. Readers regularly help each other and take great interest in each other’s projects, as does the staff. There’s a sense of community here that is highly valued, and through the Past is Present we are pleased to include our blog readers in our community as well. In that way, the past will be our present to you.

Try tilting your head just slightly…

They represent a type of carnage we can’t even imagine. Today they would cause more than a few gasps. And, yet unable to rewrite this tragedy, we feast on the spoils.

Okay, I’m being dramatic. But for archivists and librarians the idea that 600 cartoons were cut from Civil War era newspapers is a little hard to handle. Yet with the dirty work already done, the four boxes of cartoons represent a gold mine for scholars of mid-19th century America.

The secret to so much of scholarship is that it matters how you view primary sources. Historian Forrest McDonald spoke to this issue in a 1999 CSPAN interview

When I first worked at National Archives, they just turned me loose in the stacks. Now you’ve got to go in, and you’ve got to tell them what volume you want or what document you want and so on, and you sit down in a waiting room, and they will bring the stuff down for you, and that’s that… Whereas it would have taken generations to do what I did in the early ‘50s, now it couldn’t be done; it simply could not be done.

Of course, full-text searchable databases have unveiled a new type of researching that changes the game once again and offer possibilities unheard of to McDonald’s generation of scholars. But the fundamental fact remains that how you see impacts what you see: Continue reading Try tilting your head just slightly…