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Clements Library Exterior
Topics: Arts & Culture

Open the door to history

By Sydney Hawkins

An Americana sampler

The Clements’ collection of rare books, pamphlets, maps, prints, photographs, and manuscripts sheds light on North American history from 1492-1900.
For many years following its opening in 1923, entry to the William L. Clements Library (that striking Albert Kahn building next to the president’s house) was limited exclusively to the academic elite. Only about a dozen scholars per year gained clearance to study its collection of pre-20th century Americana.

Over the last few decades, though, the library has begun to open its doors to a broader audience. And as part of an effort to enhance accessibility and increase the use of its collections, the library just completed a 2.5-year, $17-million renovation and expansion. Today, the library encourages students and scholars of all academic levels to engage with its ever-growing treasure trove.

“We’re thrilled to welcome people back to a space that we’re very proud of,” says Clements Library director, J. Kevin Graffagnino. “There are many alumni who studied here and have probably never had the opportunity to step inside, which is something we really want to change.”

A magical place

A passion realized

Designed by Michigan architect Kahn, the Clements Library is a landmark on U-M’s central campus that houses one of the most comprehensive collections of early American history in the world.

Kahn designed the building in the Italian Renaissance style, based on Vignola’s casino for the Villa Farnese, ca. 1587, in Capraola, Italy. The stunning interior suggests an upscale men’s club or fine urban residence, with a high vaulted ceiling, symmetrical alcoves, and a second-story balcony. Even the windows feature elegant detail.

Interior, Clements Library. (Image: Scott Soderberg, Michigan Photography.)

Interior, Clements Library. (Image: Scott Soderberg, Michigan Photography.)

Its name comes from the building’s benefactor, William L. Clements, an Ann Arbor native, U-M alumnus (1882) and former regent of the University who made his fortune supplying equipment for the construction of the Panama Canal and other major engineering projects at the turn of the century.

As his personal wealth grew, so did his passion for history. Clements began collecting the rare books and manuscripts that make up the heart of the existing collection. On almost any aspect of the early American experience — military history, government, religion, gender and ethnicity, culinary history, the creative arts, and exploration — the library’s collection of  original primary source documents is among the best in the world.

Holdings are particularly strong in material relating to the American Revolution. Mr. Clements found the descendants of many of they key players in the Revolution (Lord Shelburne, General Sir Henry Clinton, General Nathanael Greene, and others), bought their ancestors’ papers, and brought them to Ann Arbor.

Other highlights resulting from more than 90 years of collecting at the Clements include documents relating to the exploration and discovery of North America, Native American history, colonial wars for conquest, the American Civil War and the anti-slavery movement, and the move westward.

Modern history

While minor improvements had occurred since the library’s original opening date in 1923, the building and its mechanical systems have never had a comprehensive upgrade.

The recent renovation included updates to the building’s plumbing, wiring, climate control, fire suppression, and security systems, as well as improvements to all three floors of the building.

Among the holdings: King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella’s confirmation of entail for Christopher Columbus’ first voyage; the British Army’s marching orders prompting the Battles of Lexington and Concord; and several coded letters between John André and Benedict Arnold.
Most notable was the construction of a two-level underground addition that includes an extra 3,000 square feet of climate-controlled storage space, which will allow most of the collection to stay securely on site.

The lower level, which was completely renovated, provides enhanced curatorial offices, collections and preservation work spaces, meeting rooms, and a larger room to be used for class visits, lectures, and larger meetings.

The renovation included only minor changes to the first floor, which is known for its iconic Great Room that was formally named the “Avenir Foundation Room” in May 2013 in recognition of the foundation’s generous $6 million project grant.

“This room — easily one of the most beautiful on campus — will become the main reading room for those working with the collection,”Graffagnino says. “We’ve made the necessary adjustments so that researchers and scholars, who used to work on the lower level of the building, will be able to enjoy the magnificent space each time they come to study.”

One-half of the first floor space will serve researchers as the reading room, while the other half will serve as space for rotating exhibitions and the display of their recently acquired 1851 Columbian printing press.

Sydney Hawkins

Sydney Hawkins

SYDNEY HAWKINS joined the University in 2012 and currently manages communications, branding, and digital marketing strategy connected to the University of Michigan's arts and culture initiative. She spent eight years as a radio broadcaster in Michigan before working in marketing communications roles at University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and the Ann Arbor Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.