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Developments – Summer/Fall 2021

When I first heard about childhood as a Quarto topic, my long forgotten love of the Childhood of Famous Americans series came to mind. I remember going to the school library and finding their orange and green covers and enjoying the old smell of the books. As I read them, I thought I, too, could grow up to make a difference in the world like Clara Barton, George Washington Carver, and Benjamin Franklin had.

Two young girls in dresses look at a book together.

Carte-de-visite album, new acquisition.

As I pondered this memory, I realized that even in biographies, we typically prefer a story arc in a protagonist’s life where they overcome an obstacle and emerge successful, victorious, revered, etc. That is all fine and dandy for entertainment purposes, but is that how we want to study history?

On the June episode of our virtual program “The Clements Bookworm,” we hosted Dr. Crystal Lynn Webster for a discussion about her book Beyond the Boundaries of Childhood: African American Children in the Antebellum North (2021). Her work shines light on the enslavement of Black children which continued as part of the process of gradual emancipation following the Civil War. This is a difficult topic. It is not the sudden happy ending of freedom that might be written as part of a feel good movie script. Instead, Dr. Webster explores the lives of real children and families caught up in complicated bureaucratic systems that denied them freedom until adulthood and often separated them from their families.

The work of combing through the archives and looking for the various clues about how children were treated is time consuming, but is important for a well-rounded study of history. Through our fellowship program, we can provide support for scholars to travel to Ann Arbor to expand the areas of scholarship explored here at the Clements. All of our fellowships are funded through gifts. If you are interested in making an impact in this ongoing work, please consider adding to one of our fellowship funds or setting up a new fund.

During the pandemic, the staff has been considering the future work of the Clements Library. We all agree that visiting researchers are integral to our mission and funding for the aforementioned fellowships is key in building a robust program. However, we have also seen how we can expand the audiences we serve through digitization and online transcription. We discussed these learnings in our last issue of The Quarto. After all, as George Washington Carver said, “I know of nothing more inspiring than that of making discoveries for ones self.”

Now, with a $350,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize one of our largest and most utilized Revolutionary War collections, the Thomas Gage Papers, we are poised to usher in a new era of access. This can be just the beginning. With your help, we can build upon this momentum. Donors are already making a difference by sponsoring the purchase of equipment through our “Adopt a Piece of History” program and through the Clements Technology Fund. Volunteers are signing up to assist in transcribing handwritten materials to make them fully searchable and easier to study. I invite you to consider getting involved as we embark upon these ambitious projects.

With technology opening up access to our collections and our ongoing support for innovative scholarship, the Clements enables a deeper understanding of childhood and other nuanced topics that can enrich and transform how we understand the past. Perhaps your own connection to the Clements is rooted in the stories you heard as a child. I hope that we can inspire children to learn history, and that as new heroes emerge more books are written. Let’s work together to continue to explore and learn from the archives.

—Angela Oonk
Director of Development