Academic journal article
By Cox, Robert S.
Michigan Historical Review , Vol. 25, No. 1
American Philosophical Society 105 South Fifth Street Philadelphia, PA 19106-3386
The American Philosophical Society (APS) traces its roots to 1743, when the Quaker botanist John Bartram suggested that the American colonies might benefit from an organization "for promoting useful knowledge." To his credit, Bartram never sowed seed in barren soil; in this case he planted it firmly in the fertile mind of Benjamin Franklin and in a city, Philadelphia, that hosted a vigorous scientific and intellectual community. Not coincidentally, the APS flowered into the first and one of the most successful learned societies in the nation.
For decades the APS functioned as a de facto national academy of sciences, and its members were instrumental in framing a national scientific and technological agenda during the early national period. Scientific expeditions to explore "the west," for example, often began figuratively or literally in Philadelphia, including that of Lewis and Clark in 1803. Thanks in part to Thomas Jefferson, a president of the APS, Lewis and Clark's journals were deposited at the society in 1817 and 1818, to be followed 130 years later by the journal of a sergeant on the expedition, John Ordway. Other members of the society have been involved in surveys of the flora, fauna, geography, and geology of the nation, studies of the lives and culture of Native Americans, and primary research in the physical and natural sciences, including chemistry, physics, astronomy, and the life sciences. To varying degrees, each of these areas remains important to the mission of the APS.
In the 1990s the society founded by Franklin and Bartram continues to thrive. Its membership is comprised of over seven hundred leaders in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, nominated and elected solely by other members, and the APS continues to pursue its mission of "promoting useful knowledge" through semiannual meetings and active publication and granting programs. Just as significantly, the tangible legacy of the society's activities, its library, has become an extraordinary resource for historians of science and early America.
The library collections contain not only the archives of the society itself but the papers of selected members (e.g., Franklin, Charles Darwin, Franz Boas, Barbara McClintock) and other material building upon and extending their interests and research programs. The 250,000 books and periodicals, 100,000 images, and over 7,000,000 manuscripts (in nearly 1,500 collections) form a tightly focused, highly integrated research collection emphasizing the natural, physical, and life sciences, the history of American social sciences (particularly archaeology, ethnology, and linguistics), and the history of Philadelphia prior to 1840. Among its particular strengths are the history and practice of evolutionary biology, genetics, eugenics, quantum physics, anthropology, and Native-American studies (particularly linguistics).
The manuscript collections at the APS are thoroughly catalogued, in many cases to the item level. The society's extensive and rapidly growing website (http://www.amphilsoc.org) provides information on its membership, granting programs, and collections; the library portion of the site includes abstracts of almost 95 percent of its collection descriptions. The site is currently being expanded to include links to full-length finding aids, and a complete on-line catalog of the library's printed materials will become available in the year 2000.
A series of printed guides provides additional access to the manuscript collections. The most recent general guide is Stephen Catlett, A New Guide to the Collections in the Library of the American Philosophical Society (1987). Among the dozen or so specialized subject guides are John F. Freeman and Murphy D. Smith, A Guide to Manuscripts Relating to the American Indian (1966), and its supplement Daythal Kendall, A Supplement to a Guide to Manuscripts Relating to the American Indian (1982); Bentley Glass, A Guide to the Genetics Collections of the APS (1988) [includes eugenics]; and William Stanton, American Scientific Exploration, 1803-1860 (1991). …