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American Antiquarian Society captures early America on the page

This 1909 building in Worcester is the American Antiquarian Society’s third home in 200 years.

DAVID LYON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

This 1909 building in Worcester is the American Antiquarian Society’s third home in 200 years.

One in a series on National Historic Landmarks in New England.

WORCESTER — “We have a lot of stuff,” acknowledged Caroline Sloat as she began a tour of the American Antiquarian Society. The retired editor of publications estimates that the “learned society and research library” owns two-thirds of everything printed in America before 1821.

Chief among those artifacts is the May 3, 1775, issue of The Massachusetts Spy, with an account of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. That newspaper was the first thing ever printed in Worcester. Patriot propagandist Isaiah Thomas (1749-1831) sent his printing press from Boston to Worcester for safekeeping in April 1775. “But he sensed something was about to happen so he stayed behind and was an eyewitness in Lexington,” Sloat explained. Thomas’s nose for news and appetite for revolutionary politics went together well. “He knew how to print and that was power.”

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The tour of the 1909 Palladian-style building begins at a portrait of Thomas in the front stairwell and proceeds to the mezzanine where his original printing press, “old number one,” occupies a place of honor overlooking the regal domed reading room.

A hard worker who amassed a fortune as the young nation’s leading printer and publisher, Thomas was also a visionary. He had been present at the founding of the country, which he believed would stand in perpetuity. So upon his retirement in 1802, he began to collect the young nation’s memory — or, specifically, anything that had been printed in America from the early Colonies to his time. That included books as well as broadsides and newspapers, handbills and programs, tickets, maps and illustrations, and almost anything else created by the mechanical application of ink to paper.

David Lyon for the Boston Globe

Caroline Sloat, the society’s retired editor of publications, shows historical maps to Donald Eastlak of Milford.

Thomas’s collections eventually outgrew his house. In 1812 he founded the American Society of Antiquaries, now the American Antiquarian Society, and donated the printed materials and his 8,000-volume personal library. Two centuries later, those holdings have swollen to about 4 million items that open a window on the American past for scholars and writers. The third home for the society, the current building has been expanded four times.

Keeping track of all that paper has been a continuing challenge since Thomas’s initial alphabetized list. The society and the field of library science grew up together, with the society often assuming a leadership role in such advances as the Dewey Decimal system of cataloging. Although the collections mostly predate 1876, the society is now in the thick of the digital revolution as it makes images of its mountains of paper.

David Lyon for the Boston Globe

The reading room at the American Antiquarian Society is large and bright.

But it is still a thrill to walk into the cool, low-lighted original stacks with five floors of shelving units and the heady scents of old paper, and old cloth and leather bindings — the antique smell of a library. The library furniture ranges from simple bookshelves to roll-out flats large enough to hold the huge broadsheet newspapers of yesteryear. The 2 million newspapers alone take up seven miles of shelves.

While the past is forever fixed, more and more examples of its printed record continue to surface. In 2002 the society added compact shelving in state-of-the-art cold storage — literally cold to slow the decay of paper. Sloat opened an acid-free box waiting to be reshelved and showed us a collection of historical maps, complete with their original pastel colors.

“The storage is more full than we anticipated it would be at this time,” she said. “We’re in danger of running out of space again.” The past just keeps on coming.

AMERICAN ANTIQUARIAN SOCIETY  185 Salisbury St., Worcester. 508-755-5221, www.americanantiquarian.org Free tours Wed 3 p.m.

Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.
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