Clements library to receive $17M interior renovation

Terra Molengraff/Daily
The exterior of the William Clements Library. The library will be closed beginning this fall for renovations. Buy this photo

By Stephanie Shenouda, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 9, 2013

In stark contrast to its “UGLi” neighbor — the Shapiro Undergraduate Library — the Clements Library is known not only for its extensive collections, but also its intricate architecture: much of the building retains its original, 1923 design and construction.

The Library, which houses the world's largest collection of American history primary documents, will be relocating four miles away to Ellsworth Road in August in preparation for its two-year, $16.8-million refurbishment which is set to begin in February 2014.

“Most of the work that needs to be done is wiring, plumbing, electrical — just bringing the building into the 21st century,” Kevin Graffagnino, the library's document, said. “We’ll take care of cosmetic details as well — like the peeling paint — making everything the best it can be.”

The reading room will be moved from its original basement location to the main room, which Graffagnino said will feel “like you’re studying in St. Peter’s (Basilica)” because of its high ceilings and intricate décor.

The main undertaking will be the construction of an underground addition between Clements and the UGLi, which will have enough space to house mechanical systems and a top floor for the rest of the expansive literary collections.

Graffagnino said the renovation plans were designed specifically so that the building’s overall look will remain the same.

“The architecture of this building is one of the treasures on campus; it has to look like this when it’s finished,” he said. “After 90 years we’ve outgrown this space and it’s a beautiful old building, but it needs to be fixed up.”

Graffagnino emphasized that the services the library currently offers, including access to their collections and references, will continue during their renovation, which is invaluable to the 1,200 people, mostly University students, who use the library every year.

Though originally the library had very strict guidelines for who could access the collections, at the demand of its namesake donor, Graffangnino said it has become much more inclusive over the past 40 years.

“What makes the Clements Library unique is that a student can come in to use the reading room and sit alongside the next Pulitzer Prize winner from Harvard or Yale coming to use the collections,” he said. “This is a public university, and service to the faculty and the students of our campus is a very serious part of our mission.”

Though the library specializes in early American historical texts, Graffagnino said it assists students from more than 20 different departments every academic year, as it contains material pertaining to many history or humanities fields.

Graffagnino added that while the library prides itself on having “the original stuff,” it would be a “shirking of responsibility in the electronic age” to not digitize its material.

“When you’re using a George Washington letter, you’re holding the original in your hands, and the real thrill of it for most people is that history is right in front of you,” he said. “We can put it on the computer, which means you can use it in your dorm at two in the morning, but nothing can compare to the originals.”

Regardless of the medium, Graffagnino said he believes the library offers a unique experience for University students.

“You have to do the unique things on this campus, so, I tell people, ‘Come to Michigan, go to the Big House, watch football games,’ but you can only do this in American history here,” he said. “What Mr. Clements created, and what we’ve maintained, is a library that’s absolutely world class, and the best in the world for American history.”

Graffagnino said he believes the renovation will only increase the library’s value within the University.

"We’ll continue to add to the collections and the strengths that we already have, while making the experience better for all those who use the library," he said.