The Clements Library website includes events, exhibits, subject guides, newsletter issues, library staff, and more.

Evolution of an Archive

One of my favorite old saws about the difference between England and the United States goes like this: In England, 100 miles is a long way; in the U.S., 100 years is a long time. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the William L. Clements Library, and in thinking about how to observe the library’s centennial, I have been struck by the fact that to me—a provincial American through and through—100 years really is a long time. How do we tell a century-long story? Where do we start? What should we focus on?

As people who work in a rare book library, my colleagues and I are all by nature completists, which is to say that the most nerve-wracking question on our minds as we contemplate our centennial celebrations is: What if we leave something out? But we can’t tell every story of every research discovery in the library, we can’t show you every picture of every source that we love (not if you want to be able to actually lift this issue of The Quarto). What I can do, though, is point to some highlights in this wonderful issue, and to some events in the coming year, that will show how we are thinking about our centennial—as a celebration of a storied past, but also as a gateway to a new century.

As part of our efforts to expand and balance our collections, and particularly to feature images on our walls that more accurately reflect the histories that our collections tell, we recently acquired this portrait of actor Ira Aldridge (1807–1867) from Hindman Auctions. Aldridge was born to a free Black family in New York City. Ambitious for an acting career, he joined an African American theater company. When their productions were met with racist violence, Aldridge traveled to England to pursue his craft. He achieved fame touring in England and throughout Europe, becoming one of the most famous Black Americans in the Atlantic World before 1840. The painting by an unknown artist depicts Aldridge as the character Mungo in the play The Padlock, one of his most famous roles.
Our commitment to collecting original materials extends in particular to collecting books in their original bindings, in contrast to earlier traditions of rebinding. There is a great deal that researchers can learn from original bindings and wrappers, no matter how flimsy. This recent acquisition’s lurid paper wrappers would have led 19th-century readers to see it as part of the true crime genre, concealing the fact that is is actually an account of the New York Draft Riots of 1863, one of the century’s most violent outbursts of civic unrest.
What you will have noticed first is The Quarto itself. Since its first publication in July 1943, when it bore the motto “Prepared in the Interests of Book Collecting at the University of Michigan,” the Clements Library’s signature publication has appeared in different outfits, changing with the times and with advances in printing technology. Issue No. 19, in October 1949, was the first to mention that The Quarto was being issued for the newly-formed Clements Library Associates. From then until September 1965 The Quarto announced itself as being issued “Occasionally for the Clements Library Associates,” at which point it swapped “Occasionally” for “Quarterly.” After a lapse of 10 years, the second series began in 1994, which brought with it color printing and the general design with which current readers are familiar. With the celebration of the centennial, we thought that it was time to refresh The Quarto’s design. We think that it captures the best elements of what long-time readers have loved about The Quarto while also doing more to attract new readers. We hope that you agree.


This centennial issue of The Quarto highlights the traditional strength of the Clements Library—its remarkable collections. But in doing so it points in some of the new directions that our work is headed as we embark on our second century. Two pieces in this issue bring readers back to some of the most familiar, and most treasured, collections in the library, but they ask us to look at them from a different angle. Jayne Ptolemy’s article on the Weld-Grimke Papers, which have been mined by historians of abolition and women’s rights for decades, puts the Grimké sisters and their family back at the center of the collection, and asks how orienting the way we approach that collection around two women rather than around a famous male abolitionist alters the resonance of those materials. Tulin Babbitt, Katrina Shafer, and Michelle Varteresian discuss in their article how their incredibly thorough, hands-on work digitizing the Thomas Gage Papers have brought to light some aspects of history that were not exactly hidden, but have not received the same level of attention as other events described in the Gage Papers. The story of the “Cahoon Affair” and what it tells us about gender, honor, and sex at the edge of the British Empire during the American Revolution is probably not one that you know. In a similar vein, Meg Bossio examines some of the numerous textiles housed on the Clements’ shelves and shares an experience connecting to the past and present through needlework, while Mary Pedley outlines the evolving use of maps to trace the presence of underrepresented populations. 

Other articles in this issue highlight the work that members of the Clements Library staff have done over the previous century. Julia Miller shows how both collectors and scholars have become more interested in examining original bindings—as opposed to embellished re-bindings— of early American books, an area where we have been focusing some of our acquisitions energy. And Angela Oonk describes the crucial role that building connections with donors has made in sustaining the Clements for its first hundred years.

For an institution that is rooted in the personal, physical encounter with books and manuscripts, very few of the images on our walls have represented what happens in the library. This portrait of an unnamed young woman holding a book, probably from the 1830s or 1840s, is part of an effort to better represent the work that researchers do in our building on the walls of the rooms where they study.
Throughout the coming year, you will be hearing about a number of new initiatives we’ll be working on, as well as a number of new collections we’ll be bringing into the building. All of these efforts will require the support of people like you, who understand the contributions that the Clements Library has made to the understanding of our shared past, and who are excited about work we are poised to do in the future. 

Everything that we do at the Clements—and everything that we plan to do—is based on our collections, and on their continued growth. And our commitment to the importance of the in-person encounter with primary sources from the American past is stronger than ever, as we emerge from the past three years where the pandemic made those encounters difficult for many researchers. Technology now permits readers on the other side of the world to see manuscripts, photographs, and books from the Clements collection as clearly as they could in the Avenir Room, and we will continue to broaden this mode of access. We will also work to make the library a more welcoming place for an increasingly diverse group of students, scholars, and other visitors. All of the changes that you see when you visit the library over the coming year are intended to help us better tell our story, to let the community at the university and beyond know what we do and what we stand for. We remain committed to preserving the materials in the Clements collection for future generations, but we are also committed to putting them to use for the generation that’s here right now. It’s going to be an exciting second century.

­— Paul Erickson
Randolph G. Adams Director
William L. Clements Library