For those in the know, the Detroit Public Library's special collections are great places to research local history, browse through pictures of what Detroit looked like before cars were king, or just spend some quiet time reading and reflecting.
DPL's special collections include the Burton Historical Collection
, a beautiful, two-story space inside of Main Library that is the preeminent place in Detroit to research local history; the E. Azalia Hackley Collection
, which focuses on African Americans' contributions in the performing arts; the Ernie Harwell Collection
, which features sports memorabilia collected by legendary Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell over the course of his career; the National Automotive History Collection
, which is located within DPL's Skillman Branch and is regarded as one of the nation's premiere automotive archives; and DPL's Rare Books Collection
Many items in these collections, however, are stored in the bowels of the library, tucked away in nondescript archival boxes because of their value and fragility. Their use is restricted to people with research interests, so before you get any action-movie style ideas, know that security surrounding these items is tight.
"People would not be allowed to sit by themselves and look at these materials," says Mark Bowden, coordinator for special collections for the Detroit Public Library. "They would need to make an appointment, and a librarian would sit with them while they look at the material." That said, if you call ahead and ask and if a librarian is available, he or she can go into the vault and retrieve an item for you to look at.
The stories behind each of the objects vary, but they all help people understand Detroit's place in history and in the world. Here are a few of the highlights of DPL's special collections:
The deed to Belle Isle
The deed to Belle Isle and wampum belt used in its 1768 sale
You may know that Belle Isle is the much more mellifluous name for what was once called Hog Island. What you probably haven’t seen, however, is the 1768 deed that marks the transfer of rights to the island from the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes to Gen. George McDougall. The sheets of delicate paper, so well preserved they look years not centuries old, include a description of the island as well as the totems (small drawings of animals) of the chiefs from both tribes. Along with the deed is a wampum belt made from mollusk shell beads and the skin and sinew of an animal, likely a deer. The Campau family, who once owned the island and donated it to the city, had handed these documents down over generations before giving them to the library to be preserved and projected.
George Washington's diary
George Washington's diary from 1789-1790
The chronicle of six months bridging 1789-1790, the first and second year of Washington's presidency, this simple leather-bound journal combines personal and presidential notes. It discusses the Western Post, which would have included Detroit at its far edge, and even described his having lunch with Alexander Hamilton, who centuries later is having an unlikely moment as a pop culture darling thanks to the musical about him currently dominating all your nerdiest friends' Spotify playlists.
Sitting a mere foot from a document handwritten by the father of our country, realizing Washington's own pen wrote the words before you, is as great a testament to the power of preserving the past as anything you may ever experience. The diary is available as part of the library's digital collections
, which means anyone from around the world can read it whenever they wish. While digitizing the diary may have helped preserve the document for a longer time, sometimes there's nothing like the real thing. "There's something to be said for being in the company of the material," says Bowden. "Nothing replaces handling the original document Washington wrote."
Mark Bowden, coordinator for special collections for the Detroit Public Library
Henry Joy, the first president of the Packard Motor Car Company who hired Albert Kahn to build the iconic Packard Plant, donated the diary to DPL with the stipulation that it never leave the city of Detroit, and cannot be sold. "Even if Mt. Vernon wanted it, we can’t give it to them," Bowden says.
The letter that grew Lincoln's beard
Grace Bedell's letter to President Lincoln encouraging him to grow his whiskers
In 1860, 11-year-old Grace Bedell's father and brothers went to see Abraham Lincoln make a campaign stop in Chautauqua, New York, near their hometown. Young Grace decided she wanted Lincoln to win and wrote him a letter telling him as much. She also had a suggestion for the candidate to improve his image: "I have got four brothers and part of them will vote for you anyway and if you will let your let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you. You would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President," she wrote. Lincoln wrote back, dubious about the idea, but did as she suggested, and the rest is history – some of America's most important history, in fact. The next year, on a victory tour, Lincoln stopped in Chautauqua again to meet Grace and thank her for her help.
The letter had been owned by George Dondero, a congressman from Michigan and namesake of what is now Royal Oak Middle School. He donated it to the library in 1969.
Mark Twain in Detroit
An unfinished Mark Twain manuscript, "Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians"
Many of us read "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" in school, but few know that Mark Twain wrote – or at least started to write – a sequel to the book. While writer Lee Nelson published a version with himself credited as co-author in 2003, Twain himself abandoned the story in midsentence on page 228 for reasons that remain mysterious. The library has the handwritten manuscript, including the page where Twain stopped writing.
How the library came to be in possession of the manuscript is nearly as intriguing as speculating why Twain dropped the story. Mark Twain's daughter, Clara Clemens, married composer and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch. Gabrilowitsch was the founding conductor of the DSO and the impetus behind the construction of Orchestra Hall – he refused to take the post until a new theater was built. They lived in Boston-Edison, and eventually their home was taken over by the Paulist Fathers, an order of priests. They found the manuscript in an attic along with other Twain materials and donated them to the library.
Interestingly, about 20 pages are missing; Clara Gabrilowitsch apparently liked to give them away as mementos to friends. The library recovered one page in the mid-1990s, Bowden says, when a family realized what they had and made arrangements to have it shipped back.
The original Little House
Laura Ingall Walders manuscript
One of the more popular items in DPL's special collections is Laura Ingalls Wilder's handwritten manuscripts for two books in her Little House on the Prairie series, "Happy Golden Years" and "The Long Winter." In 1967, the Detroit Public Library opened the Laura Ingalls Wilder branch on Seven Mile Road near Van Dyke. In gratitude, she sent the library the manuscripts, photos, and illustrations from Helen Sewell and Mildred Boyle, the first illustrators of the book series.
Wilder wrote the manuscripts on simple grocery store tablets, which cost 50 cents each. Despite their humble appearance, Bowden says they are among the most requested items in the collection. "Because of the TV show and books, we get lots of families coming in to see this," he says.
The dawn of writing
Sumerian clay cone featuring cuneiform inscriptions
The oldest item in the library's collection is a Sumerian clay cone inscribed with cuneiform writing, dating from 2100 BCE. As Bowden points out, this is the earliest from of recorded writing and thus fits in with the idea of a library as a storehouse and curator of written information.
One common thread of all of these items, save the clay cone, is that they are all works on paper – and when was the last time you wrote out a letter, document or even a grocery list on paper? The increasing digitalization of communication is a challenge the profession is struggling with, Bowden says. "That's a quandary, and there is no universal answer. The profession is trying to work these things out." The library has custody of Mayor Coleman Young's papers, 328 boxes of them, and Bowden says it's unlikely they will have that much paper from an important Detroiter ever again.
Preserving digital records means transferring them every few years to the latest operating system, something most public libraries don't have resources to do. Bowden says the best method for preserving your own history is to print out copies of emails and important records. After all, websites can disappear and digital storage can crash, obliterating entire bodies of work – or even that first email where your future partner asked you out.
"These are the raw materials if history, what historians look at to tell a story," says Bowden. Thankfully, libraries are there to preserve them.
To learn more about Detroit Public Library's special collections, click here
Amy Kuras is a Detroit-based freelance writer.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.