WHEN the American Revolution began, the first thing Isaiah Thomas (the famous printer, not the famous basketball player) did was to take apart his printing press and have friends secretly ship it from Boston to Worcester, 40 miles west. Safe from the long red arm of the British, Mr. Thomas continued to print revolutionary tracts that helped unify the 13 Colonies. After retiring, Thomas started to preserve the history of the nation he'd helped make. He bought back issues of Revolutionary newspapers, collected armloads of broadsides and pamphlets, and one copy of every ballad in the largest music store in Boston. In 1812, he and some friends formed the first historical society to preserve materials from all parts of the country, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester. Thomas donated his 8,000-volume collection and the then-munificent sum of $20,000. It was first opened in a library built for it in 1820.
Today the society is housed in its third site, a stately 1912 Palladian-style building. It contains the largest collection of printed material on the first 250 years of American history, including two-thirds of the total pieces known to have been printed in this country between 1640 and 1821.
But there's a lot more than just official documents. Lottery tickets, cookbooks, sheet music, children's books, almanacs, and valentines reveal what early Americans thought about, how they occupied themselves, what mattered to them. As Dr. Willard Thorpe of Princeton University says, ``In a sense, the American Antiquarian Society gave us our past.''
In honor of its 175th anniversary, this quiet society, little known outside academic circles, is throwing open its doors to the public and showing off its treasures in ``A Sampler: 175 Years of Collecting American History.''
From Oct. 18 to 20, visitors will be able to see the Algonquin Bible, the first Bible printed in the New World and the first in an Indian language; a whaling journal with watercolor illustrations (1613); Samuel Richardson's ``Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded,'' the first novel printed in America (1742); and poems by Anne Bradstreet, North America's first woman poet (1678); as well as maps, political cartoons, diaries, narratives of battles, prints, and games (vellum playing cards made by Indians).
This is a tiny sampling from the society's 3 million books (some so fragile they're in boxes), manuscripts, broadsides, and newspapers, all lined up along 20 miles of shelving. Visitors will be able to at least pass by some of those during the three-day exhibition the society is holding starting Sunday. Though the stacks are normally off limits to the public, visitors will have a rare opportunity to see where the Massachusetts Spy, the newspaper Isaiah Thomas started, are shelved. Or listen to a staff member talk about the ``wallpaper newspapers'' printed on wallpaper during the Civil War in the South because newsprint was unavailable. The society has a copy of the Confederate Banner of Oct. 25, 1862, on wallpaper, the first part printed by Confederates, the last by Yankee troops when they took over the town.
They'll also be able to see the results of conservation efforts by comparing a crumbling 1807 music book with a restored version.
Perhaps the showpiece of the exhibition is the Council Room. Visitors can view the extensive Increase, Cotton, and Samuel Mather library, the collection of miniature books, and the Bay Book of Psalms. Or perhaps just listen to John Hancock's delicately chiming clock.
The expansive reading room, with Isaiah Thomas's original printing press displayed on a balcony overhead, has long been a mecca for scholars. Last year, there were 10,000 visitors from 43 states and seven foreign countries. While any serious researcher can use the facilities for free, the society's rules limit membership (by election) to 500. Past members have included 12 American presidents, 48 Pulitzer Prize winners, and such notables as Henry Cabot Lodge, Alexander Graham Bell, and Daniel Webster.
Genealogists come here to untangle family trees, historians to piece together the past (see related story), and writers to wrestle facts out of obscure documents for their novels, operas, and plays. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and novelist Esther Forbes did research for ``Johnny Tremaine'' in this library. Kenneth Silverman, professor of English at New York University, checked facts for ``The Life and Times of Cotton Mather.''
``The American Antiquarian Society is a vast reservoir of national memory,'' says Dr. Silverman. ``Its deep collections ... have supplied some of the main substance of the country's knowledge of itself.''
The society offers fellowships to scholars doing research. Many of them stay in the restored Goddard-Daniels House (built in 1905) across the street.
But scholars don't have to travel to Worcester to make use of the society's shelved bounty.
Increasingly it is trying to broaden its outreach by making available to libraries microform copies of more than 90,000 books, almanacs, and pamphlets from 1640 to 1820. The society also has computer-assisted cataloging, enabling any graduate student doing research on early American history to tap the resources of the society through computer.