Digging through Library of Michigan’s treasure trove of rare books

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When scavenging through a collection of books, you never know what you are going to find. But first, you must look.

Most major libraries have a rare book collection where they house books that are singular in their content; books not found in general circulation or books that are fragile from age.

A rare book collection may also contain books of high dollar value, first edition books signed by authors, and other paper items like scrapbooks, maps, letters and public documents.

A number of libraries in the Lansing area have collections that fall under the rubric of “rare” including the MSU Library System; the Capital Area District Library, Local History Room; Delta Township Library; the Michigan State History archives; the Catholic Diocese of Lansing and the Library of Michigan.

Almost always, unless there are digital versions available — check Google, which has digitized millions of volumes — you must make an appointment to examine material since rare books most often are locked up in climate-controlled rooms for preservation and to prevent theft.

Many, but not all, libraries will require identification and it is most often required that a staff member be present during the examination. At the Library of Michigan, you can request help via email at librarian@mi.gov.

The entire collection of rare books can be accessed at michigan.gov/libraryofmichigan. Then click on Answer Catalog at the top of the page, indicate a keyword and select “rare materials collection.”

For this article, I was allowed in the rare book vault of the Library of Michigan, which is named after former congresswoman and lieutenant governorw Martha Griffiths. My host was head of Special Collections, Timothy Gleisner. He has 20 years of experience as a librarian working in Staten Island, Manhattan, Holland and Grand Rapids, before joining the Library of Michigan.

Just inside the room — which holds approximately 30,000 books and other rare materials — were publications relating to the suffrage movement in Michigan, which had been requested by State Capitol historian Valerie Marvin for a series of programs to be conducted later this year. Included was a scrapbook of a Lansing suffrage leader and some rare newsletters on a World War I women’s relief group.

Just a few short steps away, the donated collection of material on the history of the Polish in southeast Michigan was being cataloged and preserved.

I would have liked to look at everything in the collection, maybe even spending a night there, but that wasn’t going to happen. As compensation, Gleisner pulled some of his favorite things from the stacks.

A glorious original Dutch map from the early 18th century shows the state of Michigan surrounded by “sees.” How did it end up in the collection? No one knows for sure, as there is no provenance tracing how it landed at the Library of Michigan.

Similarly, an oversized fragile volume of “Game Fish of the Northern States” from 1862 also has no provenance but shows brightly colored lithographs of fish.

For obvious reasons, the Library of Michigan rare book collection focuses on Michigan topics and books by Michigan authors. There are exceptions such as the first Gutenberg Bible printed in the United States.

There is one volume titled “Ojibwa Bible,” a rare bible in Anishinaabe language. Unfortunately, the bible has been rebound in a stiff orange binding process of preserving a book that was quite common. A nearby book title, “History of American Missions to the Heathens,” is likely a memoir of a missionary group.

Gleisner said one of the strengths of the collection is the history of numerous faiths, clubs, political subdivisions and organizations. He calls these “the foundational documents of the state.”

He said there are books and documents about the German Migration to Saginaw and the Dutch Migration to Michigan. There also are books with birch bark bindings and books like “Sex,” the Madonna memoir.

He also pointed out a collection of the Women’s Defense Unit letters, a group organized by women during the WWI effort. Following the war, those connections were used to mobilize for women’s suffrage.

One book being readied for use relates to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. In it, Harriet Tenney, state librarian from 1869-1891, wrote a personal note about holding the document at the discretion of the Union.

“This sort of unique, one-of-a-kind object is, in my opinion, the very best kind of treasure that the rare book room holds,” Marvin said.

Gleisner said he is always impressed with the collections that reside in local libraries across the state.

“In a visit to the Adrian library, I learned it has a gigantic collection on urban renewal, which is extremely timely,” he said.

“My goal is to increase material relating to the African American, Hispanic, Arab and Native American Communities,” Gleisner said.

The Library of Michigan has closed to the public until March 30, due to Michigan’s coronavirus mandates. You can still access its digital resources at michigan.gov/libraryofmichigan.

Donations of rare books and collections are being accepted. Email librarian@libraryofmichigan.Mi.gov to discuss a donation.

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