Reuther Library

There are the plans for Wayne State’s campus — blueprints for its entirety — designed by the architect who designed the World Trade Center.

There are letters between a man and a woman, both WSU professors, written during World War II. The correspondence abruptly ends; the professor has died. His ship, the U.S.S Indianapolis, was torpedoed on its return mission after delivering the A-Bomb that would fall on Japan.

There are Rosa Parks’ papers — her personal effects, neatly boxed, and accessible to anyone who cares to read them.

These gems of history are fascinating peeks into the past, and believe it or not, are housed on WSU’s campus.

Students may not know that three buildings on campus — Deroy Hall, the College of Education and the McGregor Conference Center — were all designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who designed the Twin Towers. Take a look at the College of Education and it is not hard to imagine. While students may not be aware that Yamasaki had a direct connection to WSU, what may be more surprising is that housed on campus are plans for an entire campus designed by Yamasaki. Clearly, that didn’t happen. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to know.

The Reuther Library is just one of WSU’s excellent resources. While, like the UGL or Purdy Kresge, it is a library with information and materials relating to various subjects, the Reuther stands apart in a couple of ways.

According to William LeFevre, CA, CRM, reference archivist at the Reuther, the library’s collection is based on three different areas. The first is the university archives, which houses resources pertaining to the university and its environs. LeFevre said the library has the papers of “prominent faculty, down to various student groups, as well as a ton of material on the physical growth of the university over the years.” Secondly, the library houses archives pertaining to the history of southeast Michigan. The third subject, which the library is perhaps most known for, is on trade unions and unionism in the 20th and 21st centuries.

While the library holds archives under these three different areas — which at a glance may seem broad or bland — it is the type of material the library houses that makes a trip to the Reuther so fascinating.

The papers and letters the library houses are just the beginning of its collection. While Reuther hosts a plethora of statistics, the stories contained within its walls are also fascinating on a human level.

LeFevre recalls the story of the Vietnam War period on WSU’s campus, which, unlike other campuses, didn’t see violent demonstrations because WSU opened up its classrooms so students could do teach-ins. Records of this are at Reuther.

The fact that the mayoral papers of Jerome Cavanagh are housed at the Reuther is a story in itself.

“They should have ended up at the Detroit Public Library,” LeFevre said, “which is the official archives of the City of Detroit, but the mayor didn’t like the librarian at the time, so the papers came here.”

Not only can Cavanagh’s papers be found at Reuther, but also the records of many prominent Detroiters such as longtime councilperson Mel Ravits, Maryann Mahaffey and the papers of Tom Stevens, the environmental lawyer who fought against the incinerator.

LeFevre said the papers on labor and trade as well as southeast Michigan go back to the 1900s. He said there are records on Harper Hospital that go back to the 1850s. The records concerning WSU go back to the “precursors to Wayne State — the school of medicine and the teachers college.”

LeFevre said some of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century are housed in the library, like the photos of Detroit Free Press photographer Tony Spina, whose photos of the Detroit riots won a Pulitzer.

“Reading books about this time is one thing, but seeing the photos is another thing entirely,” LeFevre said.

Although it is now four floors of more than 75,000 linear feet of records as well as stack areas, offices, processing areas, a reading room and viewing area for audiovisual, the Reuther’s beginnings were not so grand. LeFevre said the archives were founded in 1959 by Phil Mason, a young history professor.

“He still tells the apocryphal tale of the university archives of 1959 being in the basement of Purdy Kresge consisting of him, a table, a chair and one filing cabinet,” LeFevre said.

The library occupies the space at 5401 Cass Ave. and now has 40 full-time archivists.

Apart from the letters, papers and records, Reuther has an audio-visual collection consisting of photos, video tapes and old wire recordings, as well as oral histories. The oral histories are recorded interviews.

“We have a fairly robust collection of oral histories,” LeFevre said. “For example, we have an oral history done by Tom Connor with Paul Schrade, who was a regional director out on the west coast in the 1960’s. He was an early opponent of the Vietnam War, an early organizer for the United Farm Workers as well, and was Robert Kennedy’s campaign manager in California. He himself was shot in the head by Sirhan Sirhan as he was walking through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. That is a wonderful oral history that takes us through the tumultuous 1960s.”

While the Reuther is packed with great bits of history such as this, this campus resource goes underused by students. “Wayne State students do not comprise as large a percentage as we would like,” LeFevre said. “Doing research here is a little different than at a regular library — our stacks are closed.”

While an interview is required for research, the intention is to aid the student.

“The idea is to go from 75,000 linear feet of records down to the set of documents, folders, or boxes that the particular person needs to target their research. We don’t want them to have an unhappy research experience with us,” LeFevre said.

While Wayne students may not use the resource as much as they could, the library is known globally.

“Over the summer we had people from South America, Asia, and Europe,” LeFevre said. “We truly are international in our research use and it’s not surprising to have somebody from Moscow, Tokyo, Bogotá, Columbia and Paris all in the reading room at the same time, which is wonderful.

“Both undergraduate and graduate students quite often just walk right past this building and don’t think about the potential resources here. I will say that anytime I can capture a Wayne State professor, usually we have the professor for good,” LeFevre said. “Usually when a student figures out what’s here, often we capture those students for the rest of their educational career here at Wayne.”

Corrections:

The Reuther Library does not employ forty full-time archivists, as the author writes.  Currently there are fifteen full-time professional archivists working at the Reuther, in addition to two part-time archivists, two archives technicians, and one administrator.

The article states that Minoru Yamasaki designed three of the buildings on Wayne State's campus. In fact, he designed four: the College of Education Building, the McGregor Memorial Conference Center, the Helen L. DeRoy Auditorium, and the Prentis Building. 

The Reuther Library differs from the other libraries on campus, such as Purdy-Kresge and the Undergraduate Library, not in its subject focus but in the type of its collections: the Reuther Library is an archives, holding the records of enduring value created by individuals and institutions.  The Walter P. Reuther Library, constructed in 1975 with UAW funds, is the largest archives of union and labor in North America, and acts as the institutional home of the files of the UAW, AFSCME, SEIU, and other national and international unions. 

Finally, no appointment is necessary for researchers at the Walter P. Reuther Library.  Our Reading Room is open from 10:00 AM until 4:00 PM, Monday throughFriday.  We also welcome reference questions via email at reutherreference@wayne.edu .

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