New General Library

New General Library

Dr. Asa Gray was the first professor appointed to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on July 17, 1837. Dr Gray was a physician who also studied botany and zoology. He was given $5000 to purchase books for the library during a trip to Europe. On his return he sent 3,707 volumes to Ann Arbor, including books on history, philosophy, classical literature, science, art, jurisprudence, and other subjects. Since the University lacked a building to hold classes, Professor Gray agreed to suspend his salary for the coming year. Unfortunately, he was never called to begin his professorship. Practically all of his distinguished career was spent as a professor in Harvard University.
Asa Gray

During the early years there was no special room for the library and books were kept wherever convenient. It is believed that temporary shelves for the books were provided in one of the Professor’s Houses.

The west Professors’ House on South University appears to have been vacant in the earliest years and it could have been in this house that the books for the library were housed.

Professors’ Houses on South University from the Jasper Cropsey Painitng
The house on the left could have been the first library.


The Reverend Henry Colclazer, a Methodist minister of Ann Arbor was appointed librarian, on June 5, 1837, the first University officer to be chosen. His salary was to begin when some books were accumulated. He held the office until 1845. During the next eleven years various members of the faculty assumed the duties for brief periods.
Henry Colclazer

In November of 1841 the Library was moved to one of the large rooms in the Main University Building. In 1856 the University Building (Mason Hall) was renovated to provide more adequate accommodations for the Library and the Museum. A reading room was provided.

The University Building

President Tappan’s son John was put in charge of the library in 1856. When President Tappan was fired in 1863, John Tappan was also removed as Librarian. Datus Chase Brooks, Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and English and Andrew Ten Brook both served in the position temporarily.
John Livingston Tappan


In 1863 the Library was moved to the new Law Building and remained for twenty years. There was much concern that the department of Law was being deprived of the use of a large portion of the building.

Law Building

Library in the Law Building

In 1880 the Library Committee reported that with the large increase in the number of students and in the number of subjects taught that the Library was “so crowded as to cause great inconvenience and discomfort to both students and faculty.” (U of M Encyclopedic Survey p. 1371) In 1881 the legislature appropriated $100,000 for a combination library and art gallery.

The curving red brick reading room was a unique architectural
feature of the University Library

The reading room was furnished with reading desks and swivel chairs. Women sat on one side of the room and the men on the other.

Charles Horton Cooley, at the left, sits with his back to Andrew Ten Brook, retired University Librarian, in the old University Library. Charles Cooley, son of Thomas M. Cooley and a great social theorist, was the central figure in sociology at Michigan until well into the twentieth century. John Fairlie, a distinguished political scientist, may be the man at the right. (Ruth Bordin, The University of Michigan A Pictorial History, p. 41)

The reading room was furnished with tables and chairs when the swivel chairs wore out.  

Portraits of the faculty hung in the reading room.  The Art Gallery was also housed in the Library.

Book Bindery in the basement of the University Library

Library Stacks were of fireproof

steel and brick construction.

The Library with its twin towers was a landmark.

The University Main Building

In 1877 Raymond Davis became head of the Library. Davis was born in Maine. His father was a sea captain, and at the age of thirteen he sailed around the world with him. The journey lasted two years. In 1855 he entered the University of Michigan, but a severe illness interrupted his studies. In 1868 he returned to the University as Assistant Librarian. In 1872 he was offered the position of Librarian, but declined the offer, as it would have displaced the incumbent. He returned to Maine and again for the next five years followed the sea. In 1877 he accepted the office of Librarian that was now vacant. He held the position for twenty-eight years. Burke Hinsdale and Isaac Newton Demmon, History of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1906, p. 275)
Raymond Davis
Jimmy Otley “The Hat Man”
“When 'Uncle Jimmy' came to the University there were but four buildings—the two wings of University Hall, the old Medical Building, and the old Law Building. In those days one of his duties was to carry firewood to the halls to feed the great box stoves, which furnished heat to the buildings. For the past eighteen years he has been custodian of the cloakroom at the General Library. During his years of service, always with small pay, he had accumulated over $14,000 which had been carefully hoarded in a small iron safe.” (Michigan Alumnus, 2/1910 )

The University Library was completed in 1883. It contained 43,366 books and shelving in the stacks for 80,000 volumes. In 1898 the book stacks was doubled in size by duplicating the original fireproof room. Accessions were accumulating at that time at the rate of 7000 volumes per year, and it took only four years to reach the limit of the capacity of the new stacks. Beginning in 1902 temporary shelving was placed along the side walls and in the windows where the sun caused damage to the bindings and paper and also caused great concern for the security of the building from fire.  Plans were developed for an addition to the library.

Sculptures in the Sculpture Gallery
Books replace the statues in the Sculpture Gallery.

Architectural rendering for an addition to the University Library
Physics Addition (left) Library Stacks (right)
Semi-circular Reading Room

Due to the addition to the Physics Building in 1905, the Library could not be extended to the south. However, the southern section of the stacks might be added to either side on the east, west, or both sides.

The Library could not be expanded on the north because of the semi-circular reading room.

The solution was to build a new library on the site of the old, incorporating the fireproof book-stacks.

The problem of continuing the work of the Library while the old building was demolished and the new section of the building being built was a difficult one. Work began on the two new stacks, one at each side of the original stacks. These were completed before the main portion of the old building was torn down. The stacks were then used as the reading and distribution centers of the Library while the main part of the building was erected. Building in two distinct sections ensured that the work of the Library proceeded on with the least possible disturbance and the minimum of inconvenience.

Sketch showing the old building within the new.
Two new stacks were erected at right angles to the old stack


The new stacks (left) the new library being built around the old (right and below)

The new University Library was completed in 1920.  The architect was Albert Kahn. William Warner Bishop, '92, the Librarian said of Kahn:

“To his ingenuity and skill the library building owes much more than can easily be told. His great experience in factory construction is unquestionably to be ascribed the unusual size of the building in comparison with its cost; the structure being completed at about 25c per cubic foot, and that in an era of high prices exceeding all previous records in the building trades.” (Michigan Alumnus, 2/1920, p. 249)

The façade between the two tiers of windows were adorned with ten medallions designed by Ulysses Ricci. They represented Religion and Philosophy, Law, Earth, Science, Physical Science, Medicine, Mathematics and Engineering, Fine Arts, Poetry and Music, Drama and History. Immediately over the central door a stone slab bearing the word ‘Library’, surrounded by the signs of the zodiac, filled the panel. (Michigan Alumnus, 11/1918, p. 83)

There was seating for one thousand readers, divided between reading and study rooms, seminar rooms and stacks.

One million volumes were housed in the new facilities, with nearly a million more with the extensions planned for. (Michigan Alumnus, 2/1921, p. 253)

The New University General Library

The casts of the Parthenon frieze and of the Donatello and Luca della Robbia Cantorie from the old library reading room were placed on the walls about the new delivery desk, thus giving it a familiar appearance.
Gari Melcher’s lunettes, the “Arts of Peace” and the “Arts of War,” formerly in University Hall, were placed over the windows at each end of the great reading room. (Michigan Alumnus, 11/1918, p. 84)

The New University Library

Between the Chemistry and Natural Sciences Buildings

The University Main Building

Sketch of the University Library (right) by Wilfred Shaw

The whole library system by 1944 included 1,217,665 volumes. There were four main libraries, each with their own director.

The General Library, the largest, had jurisdiction over the various School, College, and departmental libraries. These included: