It was a dismal, Michigan morning — cloudy, with raindrops that didn’t warrant the use of an umbrella but were heavy enough for me to put up my sweatshirt hood — and it was my first semester at the University of Michigan when I went to the Bentley Historical Library on North Campus for the first time. I had been forced into familiarity with the buses going to the University’s separate campus — I had an 8:30 a.m. class on North four days a week and knew how to navigate the often daunting system. I arrived at the library after a quick trip on one such bus.
The Bentley Library — established in 1935 by the University Board of Regents — had archives I needed to see for one of my earliest stories at the Daily. I was working on a piece about the newly archived collection of University alum Jack Kevorkian, a famed advocate for assisted suicide. What I found in the archives, procured by library assistants, were files of what are referred to as “medicide” — or medically assisted suicide — letters Kevorkian received from clients whom were suffering from illnesses they believed made their lives unbearable. There were also records from Kevorkian’s court trials; following years of advocacy, he was convicted and sent to prison for murder.
At the time these papers and files were made available to the public in December 2015, Lara Zielin, the editorial director at the Bentley Historical Library, said an increase in interest in the archives was noticeable.
“It’s a sensitive subject, and we’re aware it evokes lots of strong feelings,” Zielin said at the time. “We’re trying to be respectful and cautious about the material while, at the same time, not withholding the things that his estate wanted public.”
These archives are just a fraction of 11,000 other research collections at the library — from those of University administrators to University athletics to documentation of Detroit’s history and state legislature photos — with more than 25,000 digital images scanned in its image bank, all geared toward serving as official records of the University and state of Michigan.
Of course, the Bentley is one of many libraries located at the University specifically meant for historical collections and that allows for visits, updates digital archives, hosts temporary exhibits and holds events to celebrate the materials available.
Though there is uncertainty regarding the future of archive preservation at the Bentley, the William L. Clements and the Gerald R. Ford Presidential libraries at the University — especially with depleting storage space, ongoing efforts of digitization and a desire to distinguish fact from fiction — it seems these libraries will continue to be strongholds of history for students, faculty and historians to come.
Though non-Bentley staff are not allowed in the official storage space of the archives, students, researchers and alumni can sign up online to request materials using the online database Mirlyn. Once the physical materials are brought up from storage, they can only be viewed at the library. Photographs can be taken of authorized materials, and placeholder cards are given when there are multiple files in order in an archive box.
My English 221 course, Literature and Writing Outside the Classroom, taught by Lecturer James Pinto, traveled to the Bentley this semester in search of old letters for analysis. The class — centered around the art and significance of letter writing — was able to look at former students’ letters, letters from the civil war and scrapbooks of letters from a woman — Lulu B. Middleton — affectionately named Aunt Lulu.
Bentley director since 2013, Terrence McDonald said the most significant and unique collections in the library include a collection of the work of architect Albert Kahn, who designed and constructed many prominent buildings — including the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press buildings, numerous Ford Motor Co. plants nationwide, the University’s Angell Hall, Ruthan Natural History Museum and the Clements library itself — books written by University faculty and staff and notebooks from students who took courses taught by famed philosopher John Dewey. These collections attract historians and students from about 60 courses per year, in programs across the University.
The Bentley takes in materials that hold value for researchers and students on information relating to the University and state. Recently, the archives have added materials related to Detroit’s underground magazines, and also showcase a number of student-made scrapbooks from the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
However, because of a recent shift toward online research and the University’s bicentennial, the Bentley has taken a number of steps for digitization and has contributed many materials to the celebrations, thought not all with ease.
“The digitization is challenging in that it requires all of the expenses of curation and storage of a paper collection, and then adding onto that the cost of digitization,” McDonald said. “Everybody is struggling with how to make the transition to more digital collections because of this.”
However, McDonald saw promise and innovation in these advances, particularly with regard to translating information in a contemporary political climate.
“We’re all concerned right now about what appears to be a confusion about truth and facts,” McDonald said. “Archives are more valuable than ever today because of this ability to let people have this experience of constructing a true account of something that happened in the past, and using that experience to help them become a better judge of truth and fiction in their contemporary lives, both at campus and after they graduate.”
One of the most noticeable items inside the William L. Clements Library located on Central Campus is the large printing press to the far right of the reading room. When I visited and met with Clements director J. Kevin Graffagnino, he told me the press weighs nearly 2,000 pounds and is one of Graffagnino’s favorite things in the library.
The Clements is different from the Bentley; instead of University and state of Michigan history, it focuses on original resources — books, graphics, manuscripts and maps — of American culture from the 15th to 19th centuries.
Clements, a University alum, made several purchases of historical materials and collections following his role as a regent of the University. After Clements gifted the University with these materials, the library was opened with his eponym in 1923 and has since grown to contain 80,000 volumes of books, 2,000 volumes of historical newspapers, thousands of maps and other preserved primary sources.
The Clements was recently closed for about two years between 2014 and 2016 and reopened last April following a $17 million renovation project, which included a new 3,000-square-foot underground space for document preservation beneath the library’s front lawn; a digitization lab; a finished office space in the basement for library staffers, lecturers and presentations; and the relocation of the reading room to the main floor, among other standard security and system updates.
“The Clements is one of the premier depositories of American history in the entire world,” said University President Mark Schlissel at the reopening. “It provides an advantage to the University of Michigan that very few can claim; having access to the materials that we have here leads to a superior learning and research experience.”
Graffagnino — who has held the position since November 2008 and is just the fourth director of the library in 94 years — called the library “one of the unique things about this university,” noting its significance in helping faculty members, historians and students with their studies.
Graffagnino believes the beauty of the Clements stems from a sense of community and the past seen through tangible items — primarily between 1492 and the end of the 1900s — and stressed the importance of knowing the history behind contemporary issues and challenges.
“There’s a difference between the real thing and a computer screen,” Graffagnino said. “Knowing that it’s the real thing makes a difference … the reality is that history matters to all of us.”
The biggest strength of the Clements is its collection of the American Revolution, Graffagnino noted, which consists of a number of letters, documents, maps and newspapers. Additionally, however, Graffagnino pointed to other famous materials in American history, including those highlighting important social movements such as abolitionism and the women’s rights movements.
“The things I find the coolest are the people you wouldn’t otherwise have heard of,” he said.
Students from 15 to 20 departments visit the library for resources, expanding much beyond history majors, Graffagnino said. Additionally, with about 1,200 visitors per year, the library provides employment to about 20 staff members — including students through work study and internship programs.
Tessa Wakefield, a graduate student in the School of Information, has worked in the Clements Library’s manuscripts since fall 2015. Wanting to center her career in archiving, Wakefield does not work with digitization; instead, she has primarily focused on organizing materials from the 18th and 19th centuries for researchers to later use. Wakefield has seen the processing of roughly 1,000 materials, including the Weld-Grimke Family Papers — those of a major abolitionist family in the mid-19th century — and naval officer family papers.
“The sheer amount of items that it holds is just amazing,” Wakefield said. “And some of the materials that it holds are just so cool and important to American history. … It’s a great library — it’s a great place to be, all of the staff are so warm and willing to help you learn and improve your skills.”
On the other hand, Noa Kasman, also a School of Information graduate student, has focused her efforts at the Clements through digitization projects. Kasman saw positives in both processing procedures and digital archives, especially when applying her coursework to the Clements, saying digital imaging and projects allow for a unique type of access.
She also saw these projects as a way for libraries to demonstrate their growth toward the future.
“Libraries contributing to supporting that kind of research is really important and is shaping where libraries are going and how they’re thinking about their digital projects. … There’s a lot of space for people who are interested and information possibilities with all kinds of content.”
The level of respect and reverence present when visitors enter the Clements is especially visible through the library’s staff, Graffagnino noted.
“For the people who work here, this stuff is magical, this is sacred,” Graffagnino said.
Kasman agreed, noting the unique presentation copy of the narrative of Frederick Douglass, a unique material she enjoys at the library.
Ending up again by the printing press, Graffagnino smiled, stating: “This is a unique resource for the people who come here. … It’s a sea change in the ways that we gather knowledge and information.”
Following my interview with Geir Gundersen, supervisory archivist of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and Museum located next to the Bentley, he took our photographer and me to the reading room, where a pair of white gloves sat on a table. The gloves were left for a researcher to use for the handling of one-of-a-kind photographs of Betty Ford. He also showed us a large clear window, which exposed a room full of rows of boxes of the archives. The room is set at specific settings for the materials — a 65-degree temperature with a 35 percent humidity level.
Gundersen said the library has an extensive history many students are unaware of. To start, the library — which opened in April 1981 — is not an official part of the University; instead, it is part of the presidential library system of the National Archives and Records Administration. The 1974 to 1977 collection of the presidential papers of Gerald Ford and his White House staff are the central collection of the Ford Library, which also has a counterpart museum, for artifacts rather than documents, in Grand Rapids.
The archives at the library overall hold nearly 25 million pages of documents, 450,000 photographs, 3,000 hours of audiotape, 3,500 hours of videotape and more than 712,000 feet of film. One unique aspect to the Ford is its collection of classified material, much of which can be made declassified through a series of processes with the guidance of the National Archives.
Gundersen noted the array of research that is conducted at the Ford.
“We get (researchers) not just from campus and the area, we get researchers from all across the country and honestly a lot of international researchers as well.”
He also mentioned special appreciation for student research, especially via classes at the University.
“Those are connections that we value and treasure, too, because … a lot of students don’t have access to a presidential library on campus so it’s a rare opportunity, especially for folks who are history or political science and are looking at grad school,” he said.
Francis Blouin, a professor of history and information, is one such teacher who has an assignment for his course at each of the three libraries, allowing students to take advantage of the materials in collaboration with their digital surrogates. Blouin teaches History 202, Doing History, an introductory course centered around interacting with source materials for analytical and compositional purposes.
Blouin is supportive of digitization for logistical purposes, but supports an intimacy with the physical materials present at the libraries.
“I really do believe that using digital surrogates are extremely convenient … there are obvious practicalities for it,” Blouin said. “But it creates a distance between the user of the information and the actual original conveying object of that information … There’s a certain kind of experience — connection — in using those original materials, knowing that they’ve had a life before the current leader actually encounters them.”
Calling the libraries a “treasure trove of historical documentation,” Blouin emphasized the significance of the in-person experience, even amidst a digital age.
“I think the main value of having students do work in the archives is that the nature of archival sources are primarily fragmentary — you’re dealing with fragments of the past — and therefore it falls on the student to actually figure out how to knit those together, how to take those fragments and create a story.”