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Cultural Collections

Renewing American history landmark

By Ann Rock

The University of Michigan Board of Regents approved Nov. 15 a major renovation project to the William L. Clements Library. The renovation project is funded in large part by a $6 million donation from the Avenir Foundation.

The Clements Library is one of the country’s preeminent repositories of historical Americana — books, graphic/photo materials, maps and manuscripts — from Christopher Columbus through the 19th century. The Avenir Foundation’s gift, which is one of the largest given to the library in its 90-year history, will be used to pay for improvements to the building’s infrastructure and expansion of its collections space.

“We are deeply appreciative of the foundation’s support, and extremely proud of our relationship built on trust and a shared commitment to preserving our American heritage,” said J. Kevin Graffagnino, Clements Library director. “The physical improvements made possible with this gift allow us to further our mission of collecting, curating and advancing scholarship in American history. These improvements will greatly enhance the quality of the library experience for students, scholars and the general public.”

The donation is a vital contribution in paying for the total $16.8-million construction cost at the library. The balance of the total comes from $800,000 donated by members of the Clements Library Associates Board of Governors, and $10 million assigned from the University of Michigan. Design is expected to begin immediately; construction is set to follow in early 2014 and will be completed in about 18 months. There are plans to make resources and materials available in an offsite location during construction.

“With this critical support, improvements to the Clements Library will create a 21st-century research environment while preserving the historic building’s inspiring design,” U-M President Mary Sue Coleman said. Other recent preservation and restoration projects at the University include Hill Auditorium, the Rackham School of Graduate Studies and the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

TO WATCH A SLIDESHOW on the Clements Library, please visit Michigan Today

The gift to the Clements Library is the third major donation to the arts and culture at U-M in the last two months. In September, Penny and E. Roe Stamps committed $32.5 million to the School of Art & Design, subsequently renamed the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design; the gift is the largest ever given to an art-and-design school in the U.S. Meanwhile, in mid October, William K. and Delores S. Brehm gave $8 million to renovate and expand the principal building at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance.

The Clements Library was designed by noted architect Albert Kahn and built in 1923. The U-M Board of Regents approved today SmithGroupJJR as the architectural firm to design the renovation project. Planned improvements will be made to the library’s electrical, water, security and air conditioning systems. In addition, plans call for preserving the building’s exterior and interior, including such features as the paneling, plaster walls and ornately customized woodwork. A specific construction schedule will be submitted pending the approval of schematic designs to be presented early next year.

Other planned improvements to the library include a restored entrance, state-of-the-art fire suppression system and increased seating capacity. An underground, 8,500-square-foot annex will be built to expand storage for the Clements’ collection, which includes 60,000 books and pamphlets, 1,500-cubic feet of manuscripts, 50,000 maps, 100,000 photographic and printed images and 1,500 bound volumes of pre-Civil War newspapers.

Each year, the Clements Library attracts more than 2,000 students and faculty from the University of Michigan as well as visitors and scholars from around the world. The library ranks among the most esteemed early-American history collections along with the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass., the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Beinecke Library at Yale University, and the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston.

More than 500 books have been published based on research conducted at the Clements Library. Notable authors who have drawn on library resources include David McCullough (“John Adams,” “1776”), Carl Van Doren (“Secret History of the American Revolution”), Gerda Lerner (“The Woman in American History”) and Eric Foner (“Tom Paine and Revolutionary America”). University of Michigan faculty who have utilized the library to inform significant works include Tiya Miles (“The Ties That Bind: Story of an Afro-American Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom”), Martha Jones (“All Bound Up Together: The Woman in Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900”) and Rebecca Scott (“Freedom Papers: An Atlantic Odyssey in the Age of Emancipation”).

Among the Clements Library treasures: books signed by Thomas Jefferson, correspondence from America’s Founding Fathers, the original 1815 Treaty of Ghent, and General Charles Cornwallis’ 1781 letter describing the surrender of the British army at Yorktown, thereby ending the Revolutionary War.

In the years ahead, the Clements Library will further digitize its collection. But, said library director Graffagnino, there’s no substitute for working directly with original source material. “We want to share our collection with the widest audience possible through online access, but there’s nothing that can replace direct connection with centuries-old originals. It’s an incredible emotional and intellectual experience.”

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