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 microfilm. 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.

See our upcoming events here


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Archives & Photos

Furniture Design

Genealogy

Property History

Research Assistance

The Local History Department may be reached by phone at 616-988-5400 (see hours and directions). Research Requests for both the Western Michigan Genealogy Society and the Local History Department may be directed to 616-988-5400 x5496 or sent here: Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Department

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. We encourage researchers to come to our library to be assisted for free.

-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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Our Archive

The Grand Rapids History and Special Collections archive contains over 410 collections which include more than a million photographs and negatives, 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.

View our digitized collections here

Furniture Design

Located in the city once called the "Furniture Capital of the World," the Grand Rapids Public Library holds one of the world's finest collections of books devoted to furniture history and design. It is primarily used by practicing furniture designers, researchers of furniture history, decorative arts curators, students of furniture history and design, antique collectors and hobbyists. Access is available through the GRPL on-line catalog and requests for material are made though the Grand Rapids History & Special Collections Department. The collection is for reference use only.

Finding Aids

Over 410 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 City Plat Maps in Collection 240.

Current Exhibits

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.


Gridiron's Golden Era: Early Days of High School Football in Grand Rapids

This exhibit tells the story of Grand Rapids high school football beginning in 1892 and up through the season of 1959 which ended with a play that came to be known as “The Run”. Over the years, autumn weekends were defined by the battles fought at Houseman Field, South Field, and Island Park between teams such as the Union Red Hawks, Catholic Central Cougars, South Trojans, Central Rams, Creston Polar Bears, and the Ottawa Hills Bengals.

Learn about the fierce rivalry between South and Union, and their annual quest for the Little Red Jug. In addition, learn about Catholic Central’s dominance in the 1940’s and 50’s under coach Ted Sowle. Also see photos of Gerald Ford as the captain of the Trojans and as a Herald All-City Player. The exhibit is drawn from the library’s vast archival collections including yearbooks, programs, newspaper articles, photos from the Robinson collection, and even some extremely rare footage of a 1948 Thanksgiving Day game.


In the display cases:

Cartoonists of Grand Rapids

Learn about cartoonists from Grand Rapids and their work in this new exhibit drawn from the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Department. View biographies and artwork from Ray Barnes, Kreigh Collins, Jaro Hess, Orville Bulman and Gertrude Van Houten. Various books and publications from our archives, such as Barnes' Razzin' the Rapids and Collins' Do You Know Michigan, will also be available for study.


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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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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.

Most of the yearbooks are located in Collection 316: The Grand Rapids High Schools Collection

Reading the Great Lakes

Come explore the Lakes with us! We’ll read a range of titles including mystery, history, fiction, and nonfiction all taking place in the Great Lakes region—from Chicago to Cleveland. This book club will be lead by our smart librarians and will take place the first Thursday of every month. Additional copies of the book are available to be checked out on Level 4 of the Main Library. All caught up? Check out the selections from 2012 & 2013

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. Directories are accessible in paper (book) form or microfilm in the Local History department. Businesses, residents' surnames, and street names are all presented alphabetically within the volumes.

• 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

• City directories (RL Polk & Co.) are available from 1865-present.

• Since 1999, these directories cover the entire Kent County area.


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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:

  • 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.
  • Civil War Index - An index to Civil War-related articles in local newspapers (updated December 2011).
  • Grand Rapids Enquirer Index - The Grand Rapids Enquirer was a weekly newspaper that began in May 1841 and continued until it became The Daily Enquirer in 1855. This ongoing index offers a glimpse into early Grand Rapids history (updated March 2015).
  • 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.
  • Grand Rapids Press Index (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.
  • Grand Rapids Herald digitized(1894-1898) - The Grand Rapids Herald 1894-1898 digital collection represents one of the city's primary source of news during the 19th century. The digitized version of the paper comes from the master films of the Grand Rapids Public Library. These master films were created in the 1940's and have been with the library ever since. If someone wishes to view the film they are located on the 4th Floor of the Grand Rapids Public Library.
  • Lowell Ledger - Browse or search KDL's digital archive of The Lowell Ledger from 1870–2013.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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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Other Resources

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.

Web Resources

Archival Vendors

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 directed to 616-988-5400 x5496 or sent here: Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Department

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