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A look into 'the vault': The Library of Michigan's rarest finds

December 15, 2023
Library of Michigan librarian Adam Oster leafs through a book at the Library of Michigan in Lansing, Michigan on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Oster walked back and forth acros the rare books collection, showing off some of the library's most interesting pieces.
Library of Michigan librarian Adam Oster leafs through a book at the Library of Michigan in Lansing, Michigan on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Oster walked back and forth acros the rare books collection, showing off some of the library's most interesting pieces. —
Photo by Jack Armstrong | The State News

Since its opening in 1828, the Library of Michigan is home to many selections of public interest in the surroundings of the Lansing area. However, there may be some interesting collections that the public may not know about, which serve as mementos from key points in the state’s history.

“We have roughly between about 30,000 to 35,000 items that are in here," community engagement librarian Adam Oster said. "It's divided up in between three different topics of overall stuff. One is certainly Michigan. The other is law, and that can be both law connected to Michigan or elsewhere, both in the country and outside of the country and then other Americana pieces.” 

Opening the library’s vault, Oster went to unveil some of the fascinating assortments that are preserved within its walls. One of more recent pieces being pushed towards digitization is the Michigan Suffragist Newsletter.

“Starting in 1914, this group was looking to help with getting suffrage passed," Oster said. "The great thing about it is that it gives all the details of different chapters throughout Michigan, even down to the county level and main level of individual people that were participating in the suffragist movement to give women the right to vote.” 

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Librarian Adam Oster shows off a copy of "The Michigan Suffragist" from 1914, an old publication supporting women's suffrage at the Library of Michigan in Lansing, Michigan on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. The volume included news about women in the movement, like a story about one woman who had chosen to attend "suffragete school."

Joining this rarity is a text in which only a few exist globally: The Historical Society of Michigan’s compilation from 1828. This piece recollects the stories of people who first visited the Michigan territory, as Michigan did not become a state until 1837.

Following the uniqueness of these pieces, another interesting resource contained in the vault are the World War I honor books. Certain county’s across Michigan would record the identities of soldiers serving in the war. This could also be a resource to families interested in the possible veteran backgrounds within their distant family lineage.

“These are books that were to collect the pictures and names of those who served in World War I from those counties," Oster said. "You can find random ones that are out there but not that many. We certainly have copies of them here.” 

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Library of Michigan librarian Matt Pacer pulls a copy of the "Honor Roll of Ontonagon County" at the Library of Michigan in Lansing, Michigan on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. The book includes photos and names of soldiers from Ontonagon County who fought in WW1 and women that worked at home during the war. The volume included several Black soldiers who were listed at the end of the book.

Having more content on tracing family lineage, the vault also contains The Totem Pole, from the Aboriginal Research Club in Detroit. This piece was an attempt to record the history of Indigenous and Native American people in a periodical form

"I'm not aware if there are any more copies of this," Oster said. "There may be one or two other copies, it's certainly not online."

The reason why the Library of Michigan is home to many of these interesting pieces of history is because of Harriet Tenney, the first woman to be the state librarian, starting her tenure in 1869. Having a passion for bringing resources and global knowledge back to Michigan, she was able to establish connections across the world, building an impressive lineup of pieces in the library as a result.

One artifact she brought with her was a special edition of the classic French novel, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." 

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Librarian Adam Oster displays the artwork inside a special edition copy of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" at the Library of Michigan in Lansing, Michigan on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. Oster said he shared a photo of the artwork through the library's social media after the cathedral burnt down to emphasize a theme of "rising from the ashes."

"There was only around 500 of them published in this particular edition in Great Britain," Oster said. "It was brought over here by her contacts overseas and elsewhere.”

Accompanied by her network overseas was her trades with different libraries would exchange certain pieces with other libraries in hopes of providing the Library of Michigan with new, unlearned topics

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A stack of huge ancient volumes at the Library of Michigan in Lansing, Michigan on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2023. The library has an impressive away of these large books in varying conditions.

The vault also features a more modern side, showcasing various music records that were limitedly produced and assortments of books signed by well-known authors.

The library allows any person to come experience these and more in the vault.

“So much of what we have in here, is not digitized," Oster said. "It's not available through a Google search. With rare stuff, people have to make an appointment. But anybody can come to the Library of Michigan and see these things, and have access, and be able to have their experience with these touch points of history.” 

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