Back in the 1700s, there was a young printer's apprentice who lived in Boston. His name was Isaiah Thomas and he became one of the first newspaper publishers in the country. He also founded the American Antiquarian Society, which celebrates its 200th birthday this week.
Located in Worcester, Mass., the American Antiquarian Society houses the largest collection of materials printed in the United States. Its library has books, newspapers, letters, even board games dating from 1640 to 1876. Its members include some notable characters, including 14 presidents.
Ellen Dunlap is president of the American Antiquarian Society. She says that the society elects its members and they come from all sorts of fields. Politicians, historians, book collectors and regular people interested in the society are all among its members.
Historian Jill Lepore is one of those members. Her latest book, The Mansion of Happiness, was inspired by a board game she found at the American Antiquarian Society. To her, the Society is a citadel of sorts.
"Maybe even, I love it more with each passing year," she says. "The more digital we get, the more I love paper. I mean, the more precious it is that there are these places — like the Library of Congress and the National Archives, the American Antiquarian Society — that save paper for us.
These days, Lepore reads a lot of her research online — even old books. But nothing compares to her experience of going to Antiquarian Hall in Worcester and calling up actual books, some from as far back as 1730. Books so old they might fall open to a particular page all on their own.
"Because that's where someone had left it open on their desk for a long time once, centuries ago," Lepore says. "And it's a meaningful page. That doesn't happen in Google books; that's a really precious gift that the archive has for readers."