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Special Report

Michigan’s Bibliomaniac

Clements pledged to donate his library and to provide $175,000, plus $15,000 for furnishings and equipment, to build a suitable home for it, if the university would guarantee an annual appropriation of $25,000 for staff salaries, acquisitions and operating expenses. While both sides agreed quickly to these details, the relationship of the Clements Library to the university’s central library system became a key point. At the outset Clements had stipulated that the head of his library would work “under the general instruction and supervision of the General Libraries of the University,” but as negotiations proceeded he changed his mind. The autonomous Elizabethan Club library at Yale and the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University were better models, he declared, so in October 1922 he demanded that Michigan set up a structure in which a separate five-person Committee of Management would oversee his library. UM officials and library administrators were surprised and dismayed by the change, but they went along rather than argue with Clements about it.

‘I am adding Americana as fast as opportunity offers. I do not know what I would do if I did not have this interest.’

All the while Clements kept buying. In February 1920 he acquired John Brereton’s A Briefe and True Relation of the Discoverie of the North Part of Virginia (1602) at a New York auction for $4,050. On a trip to England in July 1921 he bought 220 volumes of the papers of Lord Shelburne, Britain’s Prime Minister during the American Revolution, at auction for $10,000, a remarkable bargain that nonetheless contributed to his book-buying expenses of $70,000 that year. Realizing that he had neglected cartographic early Americana, in 1922 he paid Henry N. Stevens of London $5,500 for 149 maps of Revolutionary America. When the library of the late Henry Vignaud, eminent collector and student of early American history, became available in Paris in the fall of 1922, Clements brokered a deal in which he and the University of Michigan would split the $17,700 cost based on how much of the collection he added to his holdings.

The amounts Clements was spending may not seem impressive to a 2009 eye, but when you adjust $70,000 1921 dollars for inflation and come up with more than $800,000, then couple that with the fact that Clements was never close to membership in the rarified financial echelon of fellow collectors J. P. Morgan and Henry E. Huntington, his spending merits more respect.

Clements may have expected that he would be done with his hobby after his library opened in June 1923, but in fact he was far from “the conclusion of a book-collector’s career” he’d predicted in his dedication remarks. Spurred on by the first Clements Library director, Randolph G. Adams, he remained as avid a collector as he’d ever been. In December 1925 he paid Miss Frances Clinton $120,000 for 16,500 manuscripts of her illustrious ancestor, Revolutionary War general Sir Henry Clinton, eclipsing his purchase that same year of 5,000 manuscripts of Clinton’s American counterpart Nathanael Greene for only $35,000. Two years later Clements added a large collection of the papers of Lord George Germain, Secretary of State for the American Colonies 1775-82, for $45,000.

He concluded his remarkable decade of Revolutionary War acquisitions by acquiring 20,000 manuscripts of British general Thomas Gage for $100,000. These collecting coups, in which Clements and his agents negotiated long and skillfully with the descendants of important leaders in the Revolution, elevated his library from a sterling collection of printed materials to an unequalled archive of unique sources on Revolutionary America.

In each case Clements outmaneuvered collectors, dealers and institutions with far deeper pockets than his, blending finesse, perseverance and outright luck to come out ahead. In the process he also demonstrated that it is far easier to start collecting antiquarian treasures than it is to stop.

Clements kept a close eye on “his” library after 1923 as well. He was in constant contact with Adams, sometimes to the latter’s consternation as the founder tried to set library policies and procedures for the new director. Although Adams fit perfectly Clements’ desire for a trained historian with a passion for antiquarian books and manuscripts rather than “just a librarian” to run his creation, like many founding donors Clements found it difficult to pass the torch even to his hand-picked and very capable administrator. Dealing with requests that were really orders from Bay City, and advice on what kinds of researchers were worthy to use the library, required considerable tact and patience on Adams’ part. On balance Clements and Adams got along quite well, and Clements’ ongoing interest certainly worked to the library’s benefit, but occasionally Adams must have pondered the wisdom of the age-old axiom, “Never take a job heading an organization where the founder is still alive.”

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