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A glimpse inside University of Michigan's historic William L. Clements Library

Visitors look at a collection on display in the Clements Library reading room (Credit: Michigan Photo Services)
Visitors look at a collection on display in the Clements Library reading room (Credit: Michigan Photo Services)

ANN ARBOR – The Clements Library is recognized as one of the top American history collections in the world, and it is located at the heart of the University of Michigan's campus.

It was the gift of William L. Clements to his alma mater in 1923. Clements was born and raised in Ann Arbor and graduated with a degree in engineering in 1882. For many years, he worked for his father's firm, the Bay City Industrial Works, and made his fortune supplying equipment for major engineering projects like the Panama Canal at the turn of the century. 

Seated: William L. Clements, Clarence Cook Little. Standing: George Parker Winship, Junius E. Beal, Walter M. Sawyer. (Credit: Clements Library)
Seated: William L. Clements, Clarence Cook Little. Standing: George Parker Winship, Junius E. Beal, Walter M. Sawyer. (Credit: Clements Library)

 

He began collecting rare books in the late 1800s, with an interest in the colonization of America and the period during the Revolutionary War. Some of his most distinguished acquisitions included the letters Christopher Columbus wrote to the king and queen of Spain of his voyage to the new world and Thomas Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia."

In 1909, Clements became a regent at the University of Michigan -- a position he would hold for 24 years. 

Designed by architect Albert Kahn, the Clements is regarded as one of the most beautiful libraries in the country, with its reading room as the focal point. Having undergone recent renovations, the impressive room is a must-see.

Credit: Philip Datillo
Credit: Philip Datillo
Credit: Philip Datillo
Credit: Philip Datillo

The Clements holds bimonthly tours for members of the public. The tours are free, but reservations are required. 

Reserve a spot here

"We schedule the public tours a couple of times a month, or when it’s Parents Weekend, we might do three or four tours," said Director of Development Angela Oonk. "We’re also happy to welcome groups into the library for tours, so people are welcome to reach out to us to schedule those, as well."

The tour is led by Marketing and Communications Assistant Tracy Payovich, who takes the group back in time through samples of the Clements' collections and a walking tour.

"There’s about 80,000 books cataloged, 2,700 collections of manuscripts -- those range in size quite a bit," said Payovich. "There are 30,000 maps of the Americas, manuscript and printed, 600 atlases and the graphics collection – a good chunk of it is photographs, about 150,000 photographs. There’s about 200,000 individual pieces in the collection, and it’s a diverse division. So, the photographs, artwork of various kinds, prints, sheet music and ephemera, which is printed material in the past that was meant to be thrown away, but we’ve held onto it."

A book in the Clements collection (Credit: Philip Datillo)
A book in the Clements collection (Credit: Philip Datillo)
On February 21, 2019, students in the U-M History Club attended a special program at the Clements Library with Director Kevin Graffagnino. The program focused on the history of aerial panoramic prints known as “bird’s-eye views” and offered a chance for a close-up look at examples from the Clements collection (Courtesy: Clements Library)
On February 21, 2019, students in the U-M History Club attended a special program at the Clements Library with Director Kevin Graffagnino. The program focused on the history of aerial panoramic prints known as “bird’s-eye views” and offered a chance for a close-up look at examples from the Clements collection (Courtesy: Clements Library)

The Clements has spy letters written to the British by the American defector Benedict Arnold during the Revolutionary War. Some of these correspondences are digitized, as are thousands of other materials available to view on the library's website.

The library's collections and experts are often referenced by other institutions. Its curator of manuscripts, Cheney Schopieray, will appear on the program "America's Hidden Stories" on the Smithsonian Channel on April 15 to talk about the Arnold spy letters from the library's Sir Henry Clinton Papers. The episode is called "Mrs. Benedict Arnold" and explores the involvement of Arnold's wife, Peggy, in the espionage.

Besides tours, staff at the Clements hold regular lectures both on- and off-site that are free and open to the public. On occasion, the library's in-house conservator will give a presentation or demonstrate how to conserve centuries-old materials.

"She has a wealth of knowledge about the materials, and it’s really fun to hear from her," said Oonk. "We do try to get her involved in our programming to show the public what she’s been up to."

See upcoming events here

There are several ways for members of the community to get involved, one of which might start in your own home.

“We’re always interested in hearing from people who have family papers or other kinds of collections," said Oonk. "We typically collect paper materials through about 1900 but then also letters and journals and photographs, especially relating to the wars into the 20th century. A lot of what we try to fill in is that everyday person’s voice, and that’s really important to the study of history."

By making a donation or sponsoring programs, each donor becomes a Clements Library associate, who will then regularly receive the library's semiannual publication Quarto and invitations to events.

"These are amazing learning opportunities that will come at you all the time," said Payovich.

The summer is the busiest time for the Clements because it receives its fellows from around the country who come to work on various research topics. 

Researchers work in the reading room (Credit: Austin Thomason)
Researchers work in the reading room (Credit: Austin Thomason)

"They’ll also engage with the public by offering brown-bag seminars on their research," said Oonk. "So that’s another perspective that we often get about our materials. They’ll bring to light collections that I hadn’t yet heard about, so it’s pretty exciting."

For more information, visit clements.umich.edu.

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