March 11 2015 12:00 AM

The William L. Clements Library offers a window into the nation’s past

Thanks to the internet, vast holdings from archives across the world have been digitally opened to the public, but it’s not quite the same as putting on the white cotton gloves and experiencing the thrill of physically encountering a rare item you have never seen before.

Clayton Lewis, curator of graphic materials at University of Michigan’s William L. Clements Library, will be at the of the Capital Area District Libraries’ downtown Lansing branch Thursday for a presentation on the evolution and growth of the library.

The library was founded in 1923 by Bay City industrialist William L. Clements. Clements donated $175,000 for the construction of the library, an imposing Italian Renaissance-influenced structure designed by architect Albert Kahn.

Clements donated more than 20,000 rare books, hundreds of maps and 2,000 volumes of newspapers. He also established the library’s focus on the early exploration and history of North America.

“The time at which Clements was collecting was an unprecedented era for collectors,” Lewis said. “Historical artifacts were relatively low priced and American industrialists like J.P. Morgan and Henry Huntington assembled significant collections around their interests.”

The library’s four founding directors have kept true to Clements’ grand design, adding collections of rare documents, books, photographs, manuscripts and maps with a focus on 18th and 19th century North America.

Photography has become an increasingly important part of acquisitions, and the library has more than 700 family photo albums in the collection.

“They provide a narrative of life and a real peek into people’s lives,” Lewis said.

Most recently, the David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography, a significant private collections of over 100,000 Michigan photographs, was added to the library’s holdings.

Local amateur historian Doug Johnson was attracted to the library, and especially the Tinder collection, for its images of electric interurban trains. Johnson, who is editing photos for a book about interurban railways in Michigan, said the collection is the largest source of those images.

Lewis said that even though the library is one of a handful of its caliber in the world, it isn’t reserved for academics only. For example, reference letters are not required.

“It’s just as likely a top scholar will be next to an undergraduate amateur historian,” Lewis said.

One University of Michigan class recently explored the photo albums of Arabella Chapman, one of the nation’s first free, educated African-Americans. She documented the lives of African- Americans in post-Civil War America. Included in her albums are images of John Brown, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

“History goes through a lot of trends,” Lewis said, noting that the study of history is moving from “the study of great white men” to the study of social history, including religious reformation and the antislavery and temperance movements.

Jim Neal, local attorney, author and amateur historian from Lansing, said the library is a great asset to the state of Michigan.

“We think the great archival libraries are located on the East Coast, but the Clements has brought the East Coast to the Midwest,” he said.

Lewis now has eye on the next phase: digitizing the graphic collection and improving the archival system for locating items in the collections.

It is recommended that trips to the Clements Library be delayed until after the current renovation is completed and the library reopens in late 2015. The col lection is temporarily located off site.

For more information, visit clements.

Evolution of the William L.

Clements Library 7-8 p.m. Thursday, March

12 FREE CADL downtown Lansing branch 401 S. Capitol Ave., Lansing (517) 367-6363,