Automotive History Collection Is Worth a Look

Seven years before Ransom E. Olds built his first cars in Detroit , the Detroit Public Library ( DPL ) bought its first book focused on the automobile. The 1896 purchase of John Henry Knight’s Notes on Motor Carriages: With Hints for Purchasers of and Users was the foundation upon which today’s vast collection of automotivematerial is built. Ever since that first purchase, the DPL has aggressively added auto-related material to the collection.

By 1944, nearly 50 years after the collection began, the size and scope of the automotive collection dictated its assignment to a special room within the main branch of the DPL. Nine years later, the collection’s continued growth in materials, importance and usage earned it the status of a special division within the DPL . More than 50 years ago, in recognition of the unique stature of the DPL ’s automotive collection, the library was designated as the major center for automotive materials. Under a concept known as the “Farmington Plan,” the nation’s great research libraries were allocated special subject responsibilities to avoid duplication of efforts and expense.

Today, the National Automotive History Collection ( NAHC ) is housed in the newly refurbished Skillman Branch Library in downtown Detroit . The Skillman is a beautifully restored art deco building built in 1932 during the depths of the nation’s economic depression. The NAHC occupies the library’s entire second floor and has large storage areas in the climate-controlled basement and third floor. The NAHC ’s public reading room and open shelves are on the second floor and are accessible by stairs or elevator.

The NAHC has more than 600,000 items of automotive history, including thousands of books, photographs, sales catalogs, shop repair manuals, magazines, biographical files and the personal and business papers of auto industrialists. A recent addition to the collection is the papers of William Knudsen and his son Semon (Bunkie) Knudsen. Both played important roles in General Motors and the Ford Motor Company.

Describing the ongoing nature of the acquisition of books, papers and other materials Mark Partick, coordinator for Special Collections, recently said, “We try to acquire every book of automotive significance.” Now in its third century of acquisition, the NAHC is a major source for auto enthusiasts, writers and historians.

Over the years, the NAHC collection has proven to be a particularly valuable asset to individual owners of older cars looking for technical data and histories about their vehicles. These materials are also widely used by professional restorers in their efforts to produce historically correct, prize-winning 100-point cars. The knowledgeable staff is very helpful in suggesting and accessing on-site reference material, and they’re available to respond to requests from all over the world. Black and white photocopies of text and photos can be made on site and photograph reproductions can be arranged.

For more information, contact the NAHC Skillman Library at 313-628-2851 or Summer hours are Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.

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