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Home » About » Blog » A Q&A with Clements Library Director Paul Erickson

In January 2020, Paul Erickson joined the University of Michigan community as Randolph G. Adams Director of the Clements Library. Erickson’s five-year appointment was announced last September by the U-M Board of Regents.

Following an undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago, Paul received Master of Arts and Ph.D. degrees in American studies from the University of Texas at Austin. For more than a dozen years he was a program director for the American Antiquarian Society and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Read more about Paul’s background. 

In this post, Paul answers a few questions designed to introduce him to the Clements Library’s visitors and supporters.

You’ve been on the job for about four weeks.  What is your impression of the Clements Library so far?

I had known the Clements previously mostly through people who had held research fellowships here, as well as through friends and former colleagues who are curators and collectors. So I knew that it had a reputation as a library with marvelous collections of early Americana but, more important for me, that it had what any great research library needs—a staff that both knows the collection inside-out and is committed to connecting researchers with the materials.

Those impressions have been confirmed, and then some. I’m just starting to explore the riches of the collection, but am trying to make a point to go look at something new every day. And the staff are as dedicated and knowledgeable as had been advertised.

How has your previous experience led you to the role of director of the Clements Library?

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my career to have been in the right place at the right time on several occasions, but in retrospect I can see how all of those steps have helped lead me where I am now. My first job out of college was in publishing, so very early on I was interested in the culture of books writ large, but especially from the perspective of thinking about books as a business. And the job after that was for an academic nonprofit organization where I administered fellowship programs for graduate students and postdocs, which was where I first learned about the world of institutions that exist alongside colleges and universities to encourage and support research.

My graduate training at UT-Austin was in 19th-century U.S. cultural and literary history, with a strong emphasis on the history of the book. I wrote about sensational antebellum print culture, which took me into the world of special collections libraries, since none of the books I was interested in had at that point appeared in modern editions. Working for a small management consulting firm in New York gave me exposure to a wide range of businesses and non-profits and taught me a lot about how organizations work. My 9 years as Director of Academic Programs at the American Antiquarian Society was a remarkable experience. I never dreamed that I’d have the chance to do hands-on work with great early American materials every day, much less to think about how to bring people in to the library and how to make collection materials and staff knowledge available to people who couldn’t visit Worcester in person. Overseeing the AAS’s academic programs gave me a wonderful perspective on how scholars use a research library, and what libraries can do to make themselves even more helpful partners in scholarship. And my role at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences provided a high-altitude perspective on the broader ecosystem of humanities and cultural organizations in the U.S., and pushed me to think in new ways about what role the humanities can play in a diverse 21st-century democracy.

So looking back, parts of all of those experiences led to the opportunity to lead the Clements Library. It’s such a privilege to get to work with materials like those at the Clements, not just from the perspective of a collector, but as a facilitator of research and a hub for collaboration and new ideas.

When you first heard that you had the job, what were you most excited about?

There were two things that were most exciting to me about this job. One was the strength of the collection—thanks to generations of skillful acquiring, the library’s collections are able to support deep scholarship from a broad range of fields. The second thing was the location. Being part of a great research university gives the Clements a built-in audience of faculty and students that can make use of the library in countless ways, and that is tremendously exciting to me. 

This is your first role within a large public university.  What are your observations about some of the unexpected benefits and challenges of being part of the University of Michigan?

Well, I did my graduate work and got my teaching experience at the University of Texas, Austin, which is one of the few single campuses in the U.S. that is larger than Michigan’s. And I grew up in Minneapolis about a mile away from the University of Minnesota. So I’m familiar with large public universities, and I feel at home on big campuses. My wife also did her undergraduate work at a flagship public university. And our son’s favorite color is blue. So Ann Arbor is a perfect fit for us.

I think that the benefits and challenges of being part of the University of Michigan are the same: the school is really big. That’s a challenge because the university is so decentralized that it seems hard to get a handle on what is going on in different places and departments. But it’s a benefit because the resources here are just tremendous. So many things that you would need to build from scratch at a smaller institution are already in place here—it’s a great benefit to a library like the Clements, which has a relatively small staff but large ambitions.

What are the most important fundraising goals at the Clements Library in the next few years?

Thanks to Kevin Graffagnino’s work, and particularly to the Avenir Foundation, the Clements is in an enviable position, with a beautifully renovated building and a growing endowment. But that doesn’t mean that we do not have needs. In addition to the constant goal of building on the collection’s strengths by continuing to acquire important books, prints, maps, and manuscripts, our most important fundraising goal will be to make it possible for more people to spend more time working with the collections and learning from the staff and each other. Some of this will involve raising funds for staff positions that are dedicated to developing programs for students, faculty, and researchers. And some of it will involve strengthening our fellowship program to bring it to a level that is on par with those offered by our peer institutions. 

What’s your impression of the members of the Clements Library Associates who you’ve had a chance to meet?

It is such a wonderful benefit to the library to have a group of dedicated friends and supporters who not only are enthusiastic about American history but are also deeply knowledgeable about both the Clements collection and the larger university community. I’ve already learned a great deal from members of the Associates about the history of the library and the university, and I look forward to getting to know all of them better and finding new opportunities for people to channel their enthusiasm for the work that the Clements does.

Do you collect anything?

As is often the case with people who work in special collections libraries, I try to avoid collecting anything that my employer might also be interested in buying. So I collect mid-century Danish furniture (mostly side tables) and also material related to a fraternal organization called “The Brotherhood of the Union” that was started in the 1840s by George Lippard, who is one of the authors I’ve done a fair amount of work on. I’ve acquired a couple of his books over the years in periods when I wasn’t working for a library, but I’m mostly interested in the material culture that the group produced: medals, badges, even a ceremonial sword.

What is your favorite item from the collection so far?

There are too many wonderful things to choose from, so I’ll go with the thing that brought me to the Clements for the first time. In Fall 2008 I was in Detroit for an American Council of Learned Societies meeting, and I added an extra day on to my trip so I could come out to Ann Arbor to see a single broadside announcing an October 1847 lecture in West Chester, PA by George Lippard.

George Lippard was a writer from Pennsylvania who wrote a sensational best-selling exposé of Philadelphia life called The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk-Hall. There have been a variety of extravagant claims about how many copies it sold—nobody really knows the numbers, but it made a splash. Lippard was an entrepreneur of print culture. He did a wide range of jobs in Philadelphia’s publishing industry, only one of which was being an author. In addition to his urban fiction, Lippard wrote several volumes of popular “legends” of the American Revolution, including the story that we’ve all heard about the ringing of the Liberty Bell. These stories were very popular, and we know that he often gave public lectures based on the legends (he had a rather flamboyant personal style, and was fond of capes). The broadside at the Clements is the only piece I’ve ever seen announcing one of Lippard’s lectures—it helped me think about his career in a new way.

Tell us more about your own research interests.

As I’ve described above, my own research interests are in the world of cheap 19th-century print, the more ephemeral the better. Sensational fiction was what led me into that world, and I remain interested in all kinds of disreputable writing: true crime, sentimental fiction, bad poetry, erotica, and scurrilous rumor. More broadly, I’m interested in moments where ordinary people—not wealthy, highly educated elites—interacted with print culture. How did the majority of Americans buy books and newspapers and prints? What did they do with them? How did they imagine lives for themselves that involved writing and making books? How did people experience the world of print in ways other than sitting down in a quiet room and reading?

I’m also interested in how publishers who specialized in ephemeral and inexpensive material ran their businesses. How did you stay in business if you were selling books that only cost 10 cents? Usually the answer is that you sold a whole lot of copies, but how did they reach that market? That has gotten me interested in questions related to how inexpensive books were distributed and sold in the 19th century.  

What is your vision for how students interact with the collections at the Clements Library?

The whole reason for a library like this to exist on a campus is to give faculty the opportunity to teach classes that will let students encounter the printed and written record of the nation’s past in person. We are working to develop a position that will work with faculty across campus—not just from the humanities fields—to bring students into the library, and to streamline that process on the library side. But we also need to be mindful that many students have never been in an institution like the Clements before, and that while we will ask visitors to adjust to our own guidelines, we may also need to adjust a bit to be even more welcoming and flexible. I’m passionate about getting people in to the library for the first time, but in some ways it’s more important to me that they make a second visit.

How can social media play a role at the Clements Library? 

The community that is interested in what happens at the Clements is not the same as the community that comes into the reading room, or the community on campus at the university. It’s not just in our interests to communicate the excitement of the work that happens here, it’s our responsibility. Social media platforms are great tools to reach people who care about rare books and libraries and history, but they’re even more effective ways to reach people who might say that they’re not all that interested in any of those things. These platforms are ideal ways to reach people across Michigan, and the nation, and let them know how relevant the study of our nation’s past can be. Using social media to reach those audiences helps us make a better case for why places like the Clements Library are more important now than ever before.

What excites you most about the Clements Library at this time?

As I mentioned above, this is a great time to be coming on board as director of the Clements Library. I am so excited by the opportunities to open up our wonderful collections to a broader audience, and to communicate more widely how the materials on our shelves can help us tell new stories that are more inclusive of the full range of diverse experiences that make up this country’s history. And I’m also looking forward to thinking about ways to amplify the deep knowledge that our amazing staff have about our collections. The expertise of the Clements staff is a crucial part of what makes this a great library, and making that more widely known is going to be an important part of our work.  

Follow the Clements Library on Instagram to hear about Paul’s discoveries as he gets to know the Clements Library.  Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter as well. A “Meet the Director” Reception and Lecture is planned for Wednesday, April 22 at the Ann Arbor City Club– learn more and register.