The collection consists of material spanning 1851-1903, with the bulk of the material covering 1876-1901, the years of Adams's tenure at Hopkins. The materials include correspondence, lectures, writings, research material, files related to Johns Hopkins University, United States Bureau of Education, American Historical Association Committee of Seven, personal files, and prints and photos. Most of the material reflects Adams's passion for teaching and historical studies.
The correspondence (1876-1901) forms the largest series, containing incoming letters arranged alphabetically. (A partial set of typescripts, arranged chronologically, follows the alphabetical arrangement.) Adams kept close ties with colleagues and former students. They apprised him of their careers, and described their teaching techniques and methodologies.
The study of university extension and its effectiveness as an educational tool was one of Adams's longtime interests. His incoming letters from Edward Bemis, Frank Blackmar, Nathaniel Butler, Melvil Dewey, Richard T. Ely, William Rainey Harper, William T. Harris, Richard G. Moulton, Lyman Powell and George Vincent outline much of the theory, practice, success and failures of the university extension movement.
Adams delivered lectures on a variety of topics to a variety of audiences. The lecture series contains not only lectures given to Hopkins students, but those delivered to Baltimore school teachers, summer Chautauqua, and public audiences at the Peabody Institute.
Because Adams devoted so much time to teaching, he did not author a large number of monographs. Although he encouraged his students to research and publish, Adams's own work was limited mostly to short articles on a variety of topics. The writings series contains manuscript, typescript and/or reprints of many of the articles. Adams did plan a life work on the origin of New England towns. Manuscript drafts of chapters of this unpublished work are also found in this series.
Adams conducted extensive research for his lecture and writing topics. The magazine articles and pamphlets complement the material in the lecture and writings series. Besides these secondary sources, Adams made holographic copies of related primary materials. These notes are included in this series.
In 1876, Adams came to Hopkins as one of its first fellows. He worked his way through the ranks of associate and full professor to department chairman. Although he received offers from other schools, most notably the fledgling University of Chicago, he chose to stay at Hopkins. The Johns Hopkins University series illustrates aspects of Adams's tenure and includes administrative records, papers by his students, a typescript copy of the Historical Seminary minutes, and clippings and pamphlets collected for the Historical Seminary Library. This material, along with his lectures, provides a fairly complete picture of his activities at Hopkins.
Adams's interest in higher education extended beyond the Hopkins campus; in 1887, the United States Bureau of Education approached him to edit a series of monographs on higher education in the United States. The goal was to cover all the states. The Bureau of Education series contains lists of contributors and titles, and a partial manuscript draft of Contributions to Educational History. The Bureau shared Adams's interest in university extension, and wanted him to research the movement in America and Great Britain. He collected syllabi and catalogs from domestic and foreign programs which are a part of this series.
The study of history in the secondary schools was another of Adams's concerns. In 1896, he joined with six other scholars to form the American Historical Association Committee of Seven, which was charged with assessing the state of history instruction in the high schools. This series contains minutes of the Committee and a typescript draft of its report.
Personal material is also included. Tributes after his death indicate that he was genuinely liked and respected. Material in the personal series supports this. Two personal scrapbooks contain cards from students and friends, cartes-de-visite, report cards, and copies of the Amherst student paper. The series also contains financial records, newspaper clippings, genealogical material and reminiscences.
The prints and photos series contains material that Adams used as visual adjuncts to his lectures. Cartes-de-visite and cabinet photographs of famous men, works of art, European cities, the western United States, a Trappist monastery in Canada, and various American colleges and universities form the bulk of this series. In Adams's lecture notes there are often marginal comments to show an image to the class; those images were supplied either from his photographic or print collection. There are also some personal photographs of his Smith students, family and friends.