Local History Department: Grand Rapids Public Library 60 Library Plaza Ne Grand Rapids, MI 49503

By Olson, Gordon | Michigan Historical Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Local History Department: Grand Rapids Public Library 60 Library Plaza Ne Grand Rapids, MI 49503


Olson, Gordon, Michigan Historical Review


The Local History Department at the Grand Rapids Public Library was formed in 1904 when the library moved into its new Ryerson building, donated by lumber baron Martin Ryerson. When planning the new building, library board members voted to set aside one room for the library's collection of local manuscripts, photographs, maps, newspapers, and ephemera. Initially the room counted among its treasures the collected reminiscences of the Old Settlers Association, Lewis G. Stuart's collection of maps of the Old Northwest, and John Lawrence's genealogical library.

As soon as the new library opened, its director, Samuel Ranck, who had previously worked at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore, began adding to the local history collection. Ranck was a lifelong friend and colleague of Lyman Draper, director of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. The two men often traveled together retracing historic midwestern river routes. From Draper, Ranck also received encouragement to build the Grand Rapids Public Library's historical manuscript collections. By the time of his death in 1952, Ranck had built a collection that, in addition to the Old Settlers Association, Stuart, and Lawrence collections, included about one hundred other manuscript collections. They included Thomas Porter's drawings of nineteenth-century archaeological objects and sites; a modest collection of letters and papers of surveyor, land developer, and politician Lucius Lyon; and the papers of city engineer and amateur archaeologist Wright L. Coffinberry. By far the Local History Department's largest and most significant collection is the personal papers of John Ball. Ball was one of the community's most prominent early leaders; his papers include the journals and scientific notes of his trip to Oregon with the Whitman party in 1832 and numerous accounts of land transactions and other business dealings in West Michigan.

In 1978 the City of Grand Rapids established the position of city historian in the public library. Placed in charge of the Local History Department, the city historian's mandate was to expand the library's role as a repository and source of local history information for Grand Rapids and its environs. Today the department serves four hundred to five hundred patrons weekly, as well as providing publications, exhibits, and tour programs. Staff members present approximately fifty public programs per year.

In the past two decades, the Local History Department's active collecting program has greatly expanded its manuscript holdings. Today it contains two thousand cubic feet of manuscripts in over five hundred collections. There are more than 250 processed collections, and nearly as many more accessions awaiting processing. In addition to the early collections gathered by Samuel Ranck, highlights of the new collections include:

* Dorothy Judd Collection (League of Women Voters, Michigan Constitutional Convention)

* Central High School History Collection (Grand Rapids's oldest high school, founded in 1858)

* Mercy Central School of Nursing

* Freedom Flight Refugee Center (Vietnamese refugees)

* Woman's History Council Oral History Collection

* Grand Rapids Study Club (African-American women's organization)

* Widdicomb Furniture Company

* Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce Collection, 1887-1990

* Grand Rapids Furniture Manufacturers' Association, 1883-1985

* Nancy Mulnix Collection (Alexander Calder stabile, La Grand Vitesse)

* Albert Bros. …

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Local History Department: Grand Rapids Public Library 60 Library Plaza Ne Grand Rapids, MI 49503
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