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Boston Public Library

The Personal Library of President John Adams, Rare Books & Manuscripts Department

Collection Profile

Deposited with the Boston Public Library in 1894, the John Adams Library includes over 2,700 volumes collected by President John Adams as well as hundreds of additional volumes donated by family members. Adams’s book collection constituted one of the largest personal libraries collected in America during his lifetime (1735–1826) and—at 3,510 books—the library remains one of the largest early American libraries still intact. This remarkable collection represents the intellectual tastes of an influential thinker, writer, and political philosopher who helped shape the Constitution of the United States and drafted the Massachusetts Constitution, the oldest functioning written constitution in the world. Adams set forth quite deliberately to educate himself by collecting books on an immense variety of subjects and by engaging the great thinkers, philosophers, and political minds across time and place through their writings. The John Adams Library spans the fields of classics, literature, history, politics, government, philosophy, religion, law, science, mathematics, medicine, agriculture, linguistics, economics, and travel.

The John Adams Library Collection is of particular interest to scholars and historians because Adams recorded thousands of interpretive and critical manuscript annotations in the margins of hundreds of his books. His engagement was active and argumentative, as evidenced by the voluminous personal commentary he scrawled into the margins of his books. In these annotated volumes, many of which were hand-dated by Adams, researchers will encounter an intimate and candid conversation that engaged Adams at every stage of his long life with the wider world of self-culture through books—as a boy, university student, Boston lawyer, revolutionary, founding father, diplomat, president, and elder statesman of the early American Republic.

In 2003, the Boston Public Library was awarded two major federal grants to fund the preservation, electronic cataloging, digitization, and physical exhibition of the John Adams Library collection. The following components of the John Adams Library Project have now been completed: electronic cataloging of the complete John Adams Library collection, accessible from the Boston Public Library’s main catalog as well as from the John Adams Library Web site; typed transcriptions of Adams’s manuscript annotations for all books with comments or interpretive notes by Adams; the opening of a major gallery exhibition, “John Adams Unbound“; development and launch of the independent John Adams Library Web site; and digitization of 33 complete volumes from the John Adams Library Collection. Through the development of this multi-faceted project, researchers and the general public are now privileged to look over Adams’s shoulder at the extraordinary revolutionary times in which he lived and to explore his deeply personal reflections preserved in the margins of this remarkable library.

Collection Profile and Overview: Beth Prindle
Illustrations: Thomas Blake

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