When Dr. Jay Pearson, UM’s second president, left office in 1962, the University was bustling with a steady surge of students and faculty, new programs and schools, and the construction of many new buildings that he’d pushed for over the course of his tenure. Pearson’s parting achievement, arguably his biggest, was the construction of the Otto G. Richter Library.
The building’s dedication drew hundreds to Brockway Hall, the auditorium upon which the stack tower had just been built, so crowning the space with eight floors of books, which, while before were housed in four temporary facilities throughout the campus, could now be accessed from one building with bookveyors transporting them easily and quickly between floors. A state-of-the-art cataloging system would speed up the process of new books reaching the hands of students, while group and independent study areas provided much-needed academically centered space outside the classroom.
But Pearson it seems knew that the building’s importance was even greater than the sum of its parts—the modern features, or added study space, or the growing collections themselves. “This is the most significant day in the history of our university’s academic growth,” he said in his speech, describing not just a building but a scholarly foundation with a library that would shape the future of the whole campus; something his predecessor President Ashe cleared the way for, and all of its future presidents would be able to build on.
The research university that President Frenk now leads just 50 years later, following so many important milestones through the tenures of Presidents Stanford, Foote, and Shalala, attests to the truth in his statement.
Looking back many years earlier it comes with little surprise that a library, as a place dedicated to the preservation, collection, and access to knowledge, could have such an impact. The Library of Congress, for instance, at the heart of our nation’s capital, is very much a part of the national history it so steadfastly preserves. It is the go-to library for government officials dating back to the time of Thomas Jefferson, who also donated to it his entire personal collection (after the building was nearly destroyed during the War of 1812). Much later, the library even enlightened arguably the most famous national scandal, its checkout history from the White House helping Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigate Watergate, leading to the eventual resignation of President Richard Nixon. One of the most famous scenes in cinematic history, in All the President’s Men, depicts the two reporters famously looking for clues in a pile of books during their visit.
In National Treasure: Book of Secrets the library is likened to a web of secret passages leading to a universal book of knowledge, something that could only be metaphorically true—but a significant metaphor. For many, a library is characterized as a place of excitement, mystery, and above all, possibility.
Our UM Libraries are connected closely to our history as well because of unique and distinctive collections dedicated to documenting the records of local and surrounding communities, which today draw researchers from around the world. One such collection, the UM Presidential Papers—including records from all of the presidents while in office—mirrors the practice of many U.S. presidents who have made their papers public, and even built entire libraries for them following term.
President Roosevelt, a major proponent in formalizing the establishment of presidential libraries, dedicated his library in 1941. His speech describes the necessary foundation, of hope, on which all libraries stand. “To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgement in creating their own future.”
We at UM Libraries welcome with excitement this new era of our university’s history. Be sure to visit the University Archives to learn more about past presidents and the development of UM.