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Home » About » Blog » A Story from Clements Library Lore: “Young Man, Make It Americana”

From its founding, the William L. Clements Library has dedicated its collecting efforts to the subject of American history. While some aspects of the collecting scope have changed over the years, we have generally held firm to the idea that items must be “Americana” in some fashion.

Plato. [Platonis Opera omnia latine]. Colophon: Impressum Florentie per Laurentiũ [de Alopa] Venetũ, 1485.  

Soon after the Library’s founding in 1923, our first Director, Randolph G. Adams, discovered the challenges of enforcing this rule against a determined library supporter. Junius E. Beal, a Regent of the University of Michigan and collector of incunabula, wished to donate his 1485 edition of Plato’s works to the Clements Library. When Director Adams protested that it wasn’t Americana, Beal replied, “Young man, make it Americana. That is what you are paid for.”

Fortunately, Adams was able to find the connection in a 1922 catalogue entry for the book by dealer Joseph Martini: “Editio princeps of Plato’s Works, and a book of interest to the Collector of Americana, as it contains the First Appearance in print of the Story of the Atlantis, which rests solely on the authorship of Plato, who sketched it in the Timaeus.” A typewritten copy of this entry is tucked inside the front cover of Beal’s Plato, lest anyone question why this book is shelved in the Rare Book Room.

This anecdote is recounted with some variation by Adams’ son Thomas R. Adams in “Defining Americana,” The Book Collector vol 57, no 4 (Winter 2008), page 562. He described the title in question as a 1480 edition of Cicero’s Tusculanae Disputationes, a book which sits next to the Plato on the shelf but was in fact part of Clements’ original donation.

Regent Junius Beal also left his mark on the Clements Library in the form of the “Beal Books” on our front lawn. These stone books were once the carriage steps at the Beal residence in Ann Arbor. 

Emiko Hastings
Curator of Books