Grand Rapids and Michigan History

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Grand Rapids and Michigan History

The Grand Rapids History & Special Collections area of the library, including the archival collections, is one of the largest collections of historical material in the state. Included are more than 30,000 books and periodicals, plus holdings on micofilm. Collecting emphasis is on the Grand Rapids and Kent County area, with additional sources on Western Michigan, Michigan and the Old Northwest. County and state histories, atlases & maps, family histories & biographical information, census data, city directories, local newspapers on microfilm, and vertical files are just some of the items to be found.

Archives

The archives contain over 360 collections, including more than a million photographs and negatives, as well as original letters, business documents, videos, and other types of data related to area families, businesses & organizations. The archival collections are secured in a temperature & humidity controlled storage area.

Finding Aids

Over 360 finding aids are available for browsing the archives of the Grand Rapids Public Library. A finding aid is a description of an archival collection, usually containing a history of the person or organization that produced the collection and an inventory of its contents.

Indexes

These indexes can be used in conjunction with the finding aids to search across materials throughout the department's collections. They range from indexing Civil War-related articles in local newspapers to indexing the Plat maps in our Map Collection (#240).

Books

A collection of more than 30,000 local and state history books is available for browsing and reference. Of particular interest are a complete run of Grand Rapids city directories; community and county histories and atlases from throughout the state; institutional, organizational, and business histories, and local and state government documents.

Grand Rapids History Titles

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City Directories

The collection consists of Grand Rapids City directories, Grand Rapids Suburban directories, and a selection of directories from Battle Creek, Grand Haven, Hastings, Holland-Zeeland, Kalamazoo, and Muskegon.

The Grand Rapids City directories date back to 1856 and include on microfilm 1856, 1859-60, and 1865-1956. Directories from 1958 to current are in print form. The Suburban directories range from 1957-1997. (Note: the directories were not published during certain years, such as 1957.) Some directories are also available on Google Books.

Yearbooks

The collection consists of High School yearbooks from throughout the city and a few of the suburbs. The earliest yearbook in the collection is the The Mirror from Grand Rapids High School in 1894. There are a wide range of dates and not every year is available but the collection is continually being added to. The collection is located in closed stacks, so you will need to ask staff for assistance.

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Photos

Over a million local photographic images document pivotal events and daily life in West Michigan during the past one hundred fifty years.

Digital Collections

View our online Digital Collections to see photographs from the archives including photos from the Robinson Photo Studio, the Morris Collection and more.

Photo Essays

Photo Essays - Series of photos highlighting items from our collection.

Robinson Studio Collection

The Robinson Studio Collection (#125) is the largest archival collection held by the Grand Rapids History & Special Collections Department Archives. It contains more than 950,000 black & white negatives, with some accompanying photographic prints, containing Grand Rapids views, news, businesses & peoples from the 1930's to the 1960's. A sampling of this collection is available in our Digital Collections.

Some indexing of this collection is available.

Order photos

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Current Exhibits

Featured Exhibit:

Archives A to Z

The archives of the Grand Rapids Public Library's Grand Rapids History & Special Collections Department contain over 390 processed collections. This includes over one million photographic images and negatives, all held in the Local History Department. A typical collection might contain letters, business documents, personal recollections, scrapbooks, photographs and other items.

The Grand Rapids History & Special Collections Department was established in 1904, upon the completion of the Ryerson Library. When planning the “new” library, board members ensured that a “Michigan Room” was set aside in which to preserve the collections. The earliest collections came to the archives in 1905 and include the papers of John Lawrence, Rebecca Richmond, and the Old Residents' Association, as well as Lewis G. Stuart's collection of maps of the Old Northwest Territory.

By the early 1950s, the archival holdings had grown to include the archaeological drawings of Thomas Porter; the papers of surveyor, politician, and land developer Lucius Lyon; the papers of city engineer and amateur archaeologist Wright L. Coffinberry; and John Ball's personal papers.

This exhibit takes a look at some of the items found in the archives.


In the display cases:

Mr. Rover visits Grand Rapids

A display of postcards depicting the exaggerated, oversize figure known as "Mr. Rover", in various Grand Rapids scenes. This display also tells the bizarre tale of the mysterious man behind Mr. Rover--the elusive Harry H. Wykom.


Still on display:

Parks for Everyone: The Story of Grand Rapids Parks

The Grand Rapids Public Library has partnered with the City of Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department and the Friends of Grand Rapids Parks to develop an exhibit featuring 35 parks and open spaces. Using historical and contemporary photos and interesting stories, this exhibit will entertain and inform. Learn about the campground at Riverside Park and greenhouses at John Ball Park. See photographs of toy sailboat racing, a horseshoe game, ice skating, and more. Whether you are old enough to reminisce about the changes or young enough to climb on the playgrounds, this exhibit is for you.


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Information Clipping Files

Although not available online, the articles are located in the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Department. Just ask at the desk.

African American Newspaper Clippings - An index of newspaper articles covering a time period from 1830 to 1935. These articles come from various Michigan newspapers, and document the history of African Americans in the West Michigan area. These articles were compiled by Carl Bajema, a volunteer to the library, and indexed by the staff of the Grand Rapids Public Library's Local History and Special Collections department.

Biography and Portrait File - Cabinets in the GRHSC department containing hundreds of files on the area's most notable men and women

Grand Rapids Homes and Architects - The GRHSC Architectural Database contains information on over 2800 properties in the metropolitan area. It spans the years 1907 to 1942 and includes a wide variety of residential, commercial and institutional locations. This information has been compiled and indexed by the staff of the Grand Rapids Public Library's Local History and Special Collections department.

Pamphlet & Article Files - Cabinets in the GRHSC containing a wealth of information on hundreds of local subjects

Women's History Clippings - An index of newspapers articles covering a time period from the 1840s to the early 1930s. These articles come from various Michigan newspapers, and document the history of Women in the West Michigan area. These articles were compiled by Carl Bajema, a volunteer to the library, and indexed by the staff of the Grand Rapids Public Library's Local History and Special Collections department.

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Newspapers and Magazines

Current Magazines and Periodicals A list of currently published local history and genealogy periodicals kept in the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Department.

The following are useful indexes to guide your research:

  • Grand Rapids Press Index Covers the years from 1982-2005. This index, compiled by the staff of the Grand Rapids Public Library's Local History and Special Collections department, indexes the publication the Grand Rapids Press. Articles are indexed by subject, name or keyword.
  • Early Grand Rapids Press Index (1893-1922) An historical archive of The Grand Rapids Press available through NewsBank. Access to the full text articles are available at a fee, however, the search feature provides a helpful index for locating articles on microfilm in the Local History Department.
  • Western Michigan Newspapers An index to the Death Notices and Obituaries published in the Grand Rapids Press and Grand Rapids Herald from 1910 to today. It includes the listings of Engagements, Weddings and Anniversaries from the Saturday papers from today, going back in time to 1970.
  • GRPL Grand Rapids magazine Index (1964-1996) Covers the years from 1964-1996. This index specifically indexes the publication the Grand Rapids Magazine. Articles for this publication center on any newsworthy events in the Greater Grand Rapids area.
  • Lyden's File Index Compiled by the research of local historian and newspaper editor Z.Z. Lydens. This research went on to form the basis for the book The Story of Grand Rapids. This index covers Historical topics on Grand Rapids for a majority of the 20th century.

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Maps

Over 1,800 historical maps of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the old Northwest Territory are included in this collection. Current and older plat maps are used by historians to locate early settlers and property holders.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps - Available on microfilm from 1887-1960 (1960 edition also available in hard copy). They include an outline map of every building, with building material and other pertinent fire information included.

Kent County Atlases - Available for 1855, 1863, 1876, 1907, these atlases indicate land owners and building locations for structures outside incorporated areas.

Master Map Index



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Real Estate Listing Cards

Organized by address and available from 1955 to 1994, depending on whether a house was listed with a real estate dealer during that time period. These cards contain a description, owner's name, a photo, and the listing price. The collection is located in closed stacks, so you will need to ask staff for assistance.







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Databases

The Grand Rapids Public Library provides free access to research databases. Databases are available at the Library or from home with Internet access and your Grand Rapids Public Library card.

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Web Resources

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Research

Due to the time and staff resources involved in researching answers to local history , genealogy, and furniture questions, some fees apply to certain types of requests.

Family history queries are answered by the Western Michigan Genealogical Society research committee for a fee of $15.00 per hour of research.

Michigan and Grand Rapids history research questions are answered by the Local History Department staff at a rate of $30.00 per hour. Copying charges are extra. Indexed obituaries are charged as follows: no charge for the first requested obituary, with any request beyond one obituary to be charged based on the library's research rate of $30.00 per hour. Non-indexed obituaries are charged at the hourly research rate.

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Contact Information

The Local History Department may be reached by phone at 616-988-5400. Also, see hours and directions. Requests for both the Western Michigan Genealogy Society and the Local History Department may be sent here: Contact the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Department

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