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As part of an effort to enhance accessibility and increase the use of its collections for continued teaching and learning, the University of Michigan William L. Clements Library will reopen on April 11 after a 2.5 year, $17 million renovation and expansion.
For many years following its opening in 1923, entry was exclusive to the academic elite—only about a dozen scholars per year were allowed clearance to study its collection on site.
Over the last few decades, they’ve opened their doors to a broader audience. Not only has the library strived to grant access requests from the general public, they’ve encouraged students and scholars of all academic levels to engage with its ever-growing treasure-trove of pre-20th century Americana.
“We’re thrilled to welcome people back to a space that we’re very proud of,” said 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.”
Designed by Michigan architect Albert Kahn, the Clements Library—located next door to the president’s house—is a landmark on U-M’s central campus that houses one of the most comprehensive collections of early American history in the world.
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.
Since then the library, which remained open in an off-campus facility on Ellsworth Rd. while renovations took place, has continued to specialize in preserving and collecting original primary source documents—maps, manuscripts, correspondence, books, prints, and early photography—from 1492 to 1900.
The collection is 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.
While minor improvements had occurred since the original opening date in 1923, the building and its mechanical systems have never had a comprehensive upgrade.
According to project managers, the 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.
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.
According to Graffagnino, the most significant change to Avenir Foundation Room, a space known for its distinctive woodwork, bookcases and decorative ceiling, will not be aesthetic.
“This room—easily one of the most beautiful on campus—will become the main reading room for those working with the collection,” he said. “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.
Visitors and readers will be able to enter the Library at two points: the south door leading from the loggia facing S. University Ave. that opens directly to the Avenir Foundation Room, and the fully accessible north entrance that opens to a spacious reception lobby and elevator.
The Clements Library (909 S. University Ave.), will host a grand reopening celebration and ribbon cutting on April 11 at 4 p.m. Tours of the building will be given before and after the ceremony, starting at 1:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.
A keynote lecture featuring Mark Dimunation, Chief of Special Collections at the Library of Congress, will be held at 6 p.m. at the nearby University of Michigan Museum of Art (505 S. State St.).
By Sydney Hawkins
Jamie Sherman Blinder