Tracking Car Culture

The Detroit Public Library’s Skillman branch houses a top-shelf collection of vehicle-related materials — the world’s largest public automotive archive


Librarians must have sensed they were on to something when they bought the Detroit Public Library’s (DPL) first automotive book in 1896. That was the same year that inventor Charles Brady King took his gas-powered automobile on its maiden voyage on the streets of Detroit, beating out Henry Ford by three months.

From then on, the library’s automotive stockpile accelerated to the point that the National Automotive History Collection (NAHC) was created in 1953. It’s the world’s largest public automotive archive.

Originally housed on the fourth floor of the Main Library, the non-circulating NAHC has been on the second floor of the Skillman branch in downtown Detroit since 2003. Designed by Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls, the Deco-esque building opened in 1932.

The NAHC is home to more than 600,000 items, including owner’s manuals, advertising literature, periodicals, books, photographs, personal papers — even sheet music, posters, calendars, and a file on jokes and cartoons related to the automobile. 

“We even have a personal letter from President Harry Truman to [former GM president] William S. Knudsen,” says Mark Bowden, coordinator for special collections at the DPL. “Knudsen was in charge of the war production during World War II, and Truman was thanking him for his effort. It’s a really significant piece of history.”

Bowden says the collection includes about 300,000 photos of car makes from all over the world, including 13,000 Packard images. “It’s probably the largest collection of Packard photographs anywhere,” Bowden says.

He says it’s interesting to track the historical changes in all matters automotive, particularly advertising.

“In the 1920s and ’30s, ads were very artistic, and the language was very flowery, almost poetic, especially for the higher-end cars like Packard, Cadillac, and Lincoln.”

Typical habitués of the NAHC are “authors, engineers, mechanics, CCS [College for Creative Studies] design students, do-it-yourselfers, and people who are restoring their cars,” Bowden says.

But there’s one group of visitors he’d like to see more of.

“Sometimes, people just stop by out of curiosity, especially if there’s a ballgame on downtown,” he says. “I’ve had people come in who are passing by and take a look at the collection. Then sometimes they’ll tell their buddies about it.”

The Skillman branch is at 121 Gratiot, at Library Street; 313-481-1862, Non-residents of Detroit pay a $10 daily fee to pull materials.

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