"The Great Subject." Reverence for worthy deeds or men characterized the histories written by the men mentioned in the preceding section. To them succeeded a group who were carried away by what John Carter Brown called "the great subject," that is, the age of discovery and exploration. Columbus and the men and things of his age were their chief interest. Some of them were collectors of rare books in this field, others were historians merely, and still others were both collectors and writers. The efforts of all were closely interrelated. The significance of the group is that here was the first theme on which the American historians made an exhaustive search into the original sources of information and wrote out their conclusions with acute reasoning regardless of preconceived opinions. It was a transition phase from the old to the new school.
Book collectors who were historians existed in England and the United States long before the period now under discussion. Among them were Peter Force, George Bancroft, Jared Sparks, William H. Prescott, and most other writers of history. Public libraries were undeveloped, and it was difficult for a man to write history who was not able to buy a large portion of the books he used in collecting information. By 1840 the library of Harvard University was recognized as one of the important buyers when a rich collection came into the markets, but it was only with the advent of the Astor Library in 1854 and the donation of James Lenox's rich collection to the public in 1870 that New York had public libraries in which a student of history could find what he needed. The Boston Public Library, incorporated in 1848, the Athenaeum, a private foundation, and the Harvard College library gave the same kind of support to the historians of Boston.
Meanwhile a group of wealthy men had taken up the occupation of collector, most of them dealing in early Americana. John Carter Brown, of Providence, led off in the movement, and found worthy seconds in James Lenox and Samuel L. M. Barlow of New York, George Brinsley of Hartford, and Colonel Thomas Aspinwall, who was long the American consul in London. The collections of the first two became permanent and were converted into libraries open to the public. The collections of the others were placed on the market and passed for the most part, after various vicissitudes, into the public libraries.