Clements Rare Manuscript Library Turns 100

One of Ann Arbor’s most interesting and academically vibrant hidden gems is turning a hundred years old this year. The squat, handsome, limestone building across South U from the Law Quad and Mary Cook House is home to the William L. Clements Rare Manuscript Library, an in-house University of Michigan institution that is open to all U of M students, academic staff, and any other member of the public who is simply interested in learning about history.

The interior of the main room from the mezzanine. Image credit: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.
The interior of the main room from the mezzanine. Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.

“This is one of the ten best collections of early Americana in the world, and it is the best that is at a public university in the United States. I think that makes a huge difference that it’s at a public university, that’s accessible to anybody,” Paul Erickson, the Randolph G. Adams Director of the Clements Library, told Current during a recent tour. “For students and faculty, it means that they have immediate access to some of the most crucial research materials that they need for their research and teaching, so they don’t have to necessarily have to travel to the great collections on the East Coast … to do research. Undergraduates have the opportunity to do hands on research with some of the best collections of early Americana anywhere in the world. And that’s an opportunity that other students at other universities in the country simply do not have.”

The interior of the main room from the mezzanine. Image credit: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.
The interior of the main room from the mezzanine. Image credit: Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.

Rare manuscript libraries like Clement’s collect as much period materials as they can get their hands on from sources all across North America to preserve and document history, culture, and the evolution of scientific understanding. It is a treasure trove of primary sources for academics and students like Jonathan Quint, a PhD candidate who uses the library to help further his research into the colonial history of Michigan and the Great Lakes region.

“It’s a big advantage for someone studying colonial North America to have Clements so easily accessible. The history department is a stone’s throw away from here,” Quint said. “It’s very easy to research here and there are a lot of wonderful resources. I’m thinking of primary sources, books, manuscripts, and maps as well. Just for the resources available, it’s extremely useful for my work. And everyone I’ve engaged with here as a researcher and an intern, everyone has a lot of knowledge of the materials and the subject matter that’s really useful.”

The main room.
The main room. Photo by Drew Saunders

Clements completed a two and a half year renovation in 2016. This preserved the beauty of the original building, donated by William Clements, an Ann Arbor native and alumnus of the U of M who made a fortune in taking over his father’s business in Bay City over a century ago. The all glass rear vestibule entrance to the building’s basement is the only exterior evidence of the 7,500 square foot expansion to the building that was made as the basement and other parts of the building were modernized.

The Italian Renaissance Revival architecture of the exterior is handsome and classically correct. Inside there is old world grandeur in some spaces that blends seamlessly into a decidedly more contemporary and high tech feel in the basement, especially in the basement archives and digital archive room.

The contemporary new touches and vault that stores some of the more precious artifacts came with a $17 million renovation in 2016, holding some of its most precious objects in its 3,000 square feet of temperature and humidity controlled space.

Students and scholars at work. Image Credit: Austin Thomason.

The library itself can feel small from the outside, sitting as it does in the shadow of the President’s House and Hatcher Library Tower. But once you step into the main room it suddenly feels like you’ve walked into Scrooge McDuck’s library – a wood paneled, double-height space with bookshelves holding their antique contents safe behind glass doors. Three chandeliers light the space alongside the desk’s lamps sitting on the tables spread out in the middle of the room adjacent to displays of some of the library’s treasures.

The mezzanine above the main room is only accessible to staff. But even what is stored up there is accessible for the public. The main floor also has a meeting room that once held the rarest manuscripts before the vault was installed. You wouldn’t notice it from the wood paneling and the fireplace, but the room itself is actually made of steel according to Erickson – an early fire prevention precaution.

The main room has an old printing press!
The main room has an old printing press!

Cole James, an associate history professor at Perdue specializing in the history of the Revolution, is currently a visiting research fellow at the library for a second time. His first time at Clements was before the renovation. James said that the library after the renovation is “tremendously different” this time around but “the material is the same: glorious material. … I think the core values of the institution are the same: promoting scholarship, being available to the general public [and] public historians.”

About five percent of the collection is digitized according to Director of Development Angela Oonk. They are currently archiving letters from a British general who directed occupying forces during the Revolution. And the library itself only holds part of the collection – there is an overflow storage facility on North Campus.

The library accepts donations of rare manuscripts dating from before the last century. Details on what they accept and how you can donate it can be found on the library’s Gift Your Materials page.

Anyone who wants to visit can make arrangements to at the Clement’s website. You can view materials “in the reading room under staff supervision” according to the library’s website.

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