Searching for a rare book on abolitionists for your American history research paper? How about a 16th century map of South America? Look no further than the Clements Library, located next to the president’s house on South University Avenue. While many students pass the Clements each day, most don’t realize that it is one of the premier historical libraries in the nation. With an impressive set of prints, books, photographs and maps from the Age of Discovery to the early twentieth century, it houses such famous treasures as the original pamphlet Christopher Columbus sent to Queen Isabella, announcing the discovery of the New World.
For the past five years, Clayton Lewis has served as curator of graphics, charged with managing the library’s extensive collection of visual materials. In a large wood-paneled exhibit hall that looks as though it belongs in a historical textbook, Lewis paused to discuss his work.
The Michigan Daily: What is your role at the library?
Clayton Lewis: I am one of four curators who work under the library’s director. I’m in charge of our graphics collections, which mostly includes prints and photographs. My job involves the preservation and care of these old, fragile materials. The preservation is handled on a case-by-case basis. I have to make sure the items are kept dark and dry so that they will last; sometimes, they will need a chemical treatment to de-acidify. I also make these items accessible to researchers who come here.
TMD: Why are you interested in visual materials?
CL: I have a graduate degree in painting and I used to work in the commercial printing industry. With early prints, I admire the artistry of the craft. In the 18th century, it involved cutting grooves into metal plates, so it was a very laborious process.
TMD: How does the library acquire these materials?
CL: There are so many exciting and valuable things that come here every day. We have a very active acquisitions program. There are gifts and purchases from all different directions. Some come from private dealers and others come from families of historical figures. I have some long-term relationships with dealers who act as scouts. We usually receive hundreds of books and graphics each year. It’s amazing how much historical information is still out there, waiting to be discovered.
TMD: What is the most exciting acquisition you’ve seen recently?
CL: We recently received a 100-year-old book of photographs from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. We have pictures of the ruins, as well as how people managed in the aftermath. This is a real human story. You can see that the country was not prepared to deal with a natural disaster of this magnitude. It’s quite fascinating because exactly the same thing is happening now with Katrina. It makes me think that perhaps we haven’t made that much progress. The old clich