Bentley Historical Library - 75 Years


Introduction written by the Director of the Bentley Historical Library, Dr. Francis X. Blouin Jr.

The year, 2010, marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Michigan Historical Collections the original name of what is now known as the Bentley Historical Library. This exhibit prepared by Marilyn McNitt of the Bentley Library staff nicely provides an overview of the history of what started as a small one room operation and has, over 75 years, grown to be a research institution of international importance.

Map of MHC space in Rackham baement

Map(A) of Michigan Historical Collections
in the basement of the Rackham
Building. From the Bentley Historical
Library Records Collection, Box 2.

On December 2, 1935, Alexander Ruthven, president of the University of Michigan, wrote to Lewis Vander Velde, professor of history, that on November 29 the Board of Regents voted to establish a Committee on University Archives to be chaired by Frank E. Robbins. The committee's purpose would be for "gathering and conserving materials important to the university's history."

Map (B) of MHC space in Rackham Buiding

Map(B) of Michigan Historical Collections
in the basement of the Rackham
Building. From the Bentley Historical
Library Records Collection, Box 2.

The effort was first located in a basement room at the William L. Clements Library. Prof. Vander Velde had earlier received a small grant to begin collecting material relating to the history of the state of Michigan and had been arguing for more systematic attention to the condition of the archives of the university. With this new authorization Vander Velde began gathering the historical records of the university, a collection of material that now numbers more than 20,000 linear feet of material covering activities of the University and its faculty dating to its earliest days in 1817.

Vander Velde also continued his work to build a statewide collection on the history of the state of Michigan as well. Among the collections he accessioned were materials relating to the governors of Michigan, the work of many Michigan citizens in the Philippine Islands, the work of the industrial pioneers of the state and the work of the lumber barons. Then, too, there were records of citizens whose lives were less known, including letters and diaries of pioneers, farmers, immigrants, and other citizens. The institutional framework of the state is also represented with strong holdings in the history of religious denominations, voluntary associations, trade associations, and advocacy groups. These holdings now amount to more than 25,000 linear feet.

In 1938, the Regents of the University noting the vigor of Professor Vander Velde's successful efforts, named this endeavor the "Michigan Historical Collections." Soon, Vander Velde's collecting success exhausted the small space in the Clements Library. The Collections were then assigned a suite of offices in the basement of the newly constructed Rackham building, where they remained until the construction of the Bentley Historical Library on the North Campus in 1972, an effort led by director and professor of history, Robert M. Warner, and many friends of the library.

Women staff of MHC

Jane Lemish and Julia Lathrop in the
Michigan Historical Collections Reading
Room in the basement of the Rackham

In recent decades with the advent of new technologies, with new ways of thinking about history and the role of state-based documents as an authoritative source, and with new demands for libraries and institutes on campus to engage creatively with the larger academic purposes of the university, we have moved from designating the department as the "Michigan Historical Collections. "Now on the campus we are known simply as the "Bentley." As such, the library is a center for the study of the history of American life with an emphasis on the period from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. This emphasis is reinforced by the wide-ranging holdings of the university archives. The Bentley offers, for example, documentation on the history of science, women, immigration, labor, business, and manufacturing, along with materials revolving around intellectual history, politics, marginalized populations, science and technology, sports, military history, architectural history and more. Further, we have engaged those interested in broader questions of memory, visuality, identity, and literary context. The Bentley Historical Library has evolved into a complex collecting institution, mindful of the diverse requirements of maintaining a collection on state history that is truly representative, mindful of the complexities of documenting an extraordinarily active university, mindful of how technologies affect the nature of archival collections, mindful of the varied uses of this enormous collection, and mindful that within the research potential of its holdings and the intellectual depth of its staff, the Bentley engages a broad range of activities on the campus and well beyond.

This exhibit was created by Marilyn McNitt and was on display at the Bentley Historical Library in the Fall of 2010. It was converted to an online exhibit by Jessica Hanes in collaboration with Marilyn McNitt in the Summer of 2011.

BHL 75th Baner, JFK