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Ethnography and Linguistics

The American Philosophical Society's collection contains material related to the languages, traditions, history, and continuity of over 650 different Indigenous cultures throughout the Americas, with a special emphasis on Native North American peoples.

The APS Library’s ethnographic and linguistic collecting can be traced back to the Society’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, who sought to gather information on Native American languages in order to better understand the cultural relationships and interrelated histories of Native peoples. This tradition continued under the leadership of the linguist Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, who attempted to expand Jefferson’s data through wide collaboration with explorers, missionaries, and academics. This mission expanded significantly in the 20th century when the Society began to receive the papers of influential field researchers.

The most important collections include the American Council of Learned Societies linguistic collection, the papers of Franz Boas, and the papers of many of his students (and their students,) such as Mary R. Haas, Frank Speck, and C. F. Voegelin. While manuscripts make up most of the material, the collections also contain over 130,000 photographs and other images, and over 3,300 hours of audio recordings, the latter of which are digitized and available through the APS Digital Library. The Library continues to collect widely in these areas and currently contains material dating from 1553 to the 21st century, relating to over 650 Indigenous cultures of the Americas.

A few of the major collections are highlighted below.