'Today is the history of 50 years from now': A look inside Ann Arbor District Library's archives

Pioneer High School yearbooks at the AADL's archives. (Courtesy: AADL)

ANN ARBOR – It's likely that many of us have come across material from the Ann Arbor District Library's archives over the past week and not even realized it.

Its digitized photographs and articles are all around us: on social media groups reminiscing about years past, on brick walls in downtown Ann Arbor as part of the Historical Street Exhibit Program and in news stories.

We recently visited its archives, located off-site, to get a closer look at what the materials look like and who is responsible for maintaining them.

Andrew MacLaren is the AADL Archives Manager and has been working at the library for about 12 years. He came onboard not long before the Ann Arbor News announced its closure in the spring of 2009 -- a turning point for the library archives.

Ann Arbor District Library Archives Manager Andrew MacLaren. (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

"When the Ann Arbor News announced that they were closing in July (of 2009), our library director Josie Parker contacted Ed Petykiewicz, who was the editor, to start talking about what was going to happen with their materials," said MacLaren. 

"He had planned on contacting her anyway because they were as concerned as we were with what would happen to that stuff because they knew that they would be leaving that building and that something would have to happen to it."

After six months of contract negotiations, the materials were given to the Ann Arbor District Library.

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"We get to hang onto these materials until we’re done digitizing them," said MacLaren. "We get to digitize them and keep them on our servers in perpetuity with the exception of U of M sports photos."

When you walk into the archives, toward the back of the space are shelves stacked with bound volumes of the Ann Arbor News starting in the 1920s. Photographs start in the 1930s and clippings files date from the 1950s onward.

An ad for Arborland Center which opened in 1961. (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

The archives are closed to the public. "That’s mainly because, when we hand somebody an envelope, we don’t really know how many articles are in that envelope," said MacLaren. "And it would complicate things for us for things to (leave the building)."

That, and the fact that people kept cutting out Iggy Pop's photos from yearbooks at the library's downtown branch.

"The best thing to do is for people to just contact us and we’ll digitize those things for them," he said.

MacLaren said he and his staff receive emails from people around the world inquiring about archive material. In many cases, they are genealogists tracing family lineage. 

Being tasked with digitizing the Ann Arbor News' collection is no small feat.

"In some ways, it’s a bottomless pit of work," he said. "You could quadruple the size of the staff and still be working on it for decades because it’s a huge amount to do. But that’s OK. We tend to focus on trying to do it the right way and do it fully rather than doing it quickly."

The organization of the materials is also unique. Depending on the decade and who the paper's editor was, photos and article clippings were organized differently: some according to alphabetical order, some according to chronology and some according to photographers' names.

"Apart from the Ann Arbor News, we have a lot of other 19th century newspapers many of which have already been digitized," said MacLaren. "We have all kinds of things that used to be in the downtown library or that people have donated to us. There's yearbooks, there's city directories, there's all kinds of other local history books and materials, pamphlets and promotional materials. 

City and county directories from years past. (Courtesy: AADL)

"We have the complete run of the Ann Arbor Observer. We have a lot of stuff that that we purchased from (local historian) Wystan Stevens, including his 40,000 photographic slides and assorted other materials that he had. This is also the home of the Ann Arbor District Library’s archive itself, so the archive of the history of this organization."

Stevens was born and raised in Ann Arbor. He led tours of the Forrest Hills Cemetery for more than three decades and was known as the city's historian. If anyone had any question about where a picture was taken or who might be in it, it's more than likely that Stevens knew the answer.

"I used to say I was married to Wystan," his wife, Catharine Stevens, told MLive following his death in 2015. "But Wystan was married to Ann Arbor."

Wystan Stevens' photographic slides stored in labeled cases. (Courtesy: AADL)

His photographic slides, stored in colorful retro cases, are painstakingly documented, each with dates and descriptions. Stevens' handwriting is still seen on the outside of the cases, acting as a marker for a location or event he captured over the years.

The lack of collectors like Stevens is what concerns the archives staff as they try to imagine what the archives will look like years from now.

"We’re always trying to think of the us's who are here 50 years from now and what they’re going to be interested in today," said MacLaren. "Because people throw stuff away all the time or people don’t document things. Like restaurant menus and all kinds of things that just disappear and then they’re gone. But it’s a document of the place in time and today is the history of 50 years from now. And that’s part of what we need to do is be thinking in that direction."

He explained that while the baby boomers are a generation of collectors, Generation X is not. They find that when baby boomers move out of their homes to downsize or start to pass away, their children are getting rid of items they feel might not have value.

"We are in the process of trying to let people know that there may be a place to put some of those things. There are all kinds of treasures that people don’t know are treasures."

A page from the Ann Arbor News' Food section in its April 8, 1981 edition. (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

Discovering these treasures is MacLaren's favorite part of the job as a librarian and archivist.

"The best days are ones where someone brings you a collection that you didn't even know about: a box of letters, a set of old pamphlets, a bound volume of a newspaper, a photographer's personal archive," he said. "Something that has been hidden away in someone's house that we can now digitize and put out there for everyone to see -- that enriches our knowledge of our community's past."

Also present at the interview was Rich Retyi, the library's communications and marketing director, who explained that the library started its arts publication Pulp to catalog and chronicle arts and culture in Ann Arbor as a way to act as a living archive. 

"For as long as I have been here, the library has had a commitment to local history and has seen local history as a core part of our mission," said MacLaren. "It’s part of what the library is here for."

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About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.