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



Published:

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, detroit.lib.mi.us/nahc. Non-residents of Detroit pay a $10 daily fee to pull materials.

Click an image to view the entire gallery
Edit Module
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

Archive »Related Content

Fall Arts Preview: Upcoming Events

Cultural life is especially vibrant this season. In this section, we offer a glimpse of upcoming exhibits, concerts, and drama, along with an introduction to the fresh faces of the DSO and a look inside a new book devoted to Detroit’s architecturally stunning churches.

Men's Spring Fashion: On The Town

Men's Spring Fashion.

Bridal Fashion: Garden of Love

Ethereal silhouettes, couture details, haute bijoux, and abundant blooms are the essential elements for undeniably romantic bridal fashion.

Stop & Glow

The Auto Show Charity Preview and the AutoGlow that follows (Jan. 14) offer an opportunity to shine in formal attire.

Spring Fashion: The Hour of Enchantment

In a secret forest where the forces of good and evil collide, a fantastical cast of characters brings the season’s most magical fashion to life.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Most Popular

  1. An Animated Life
    As Rob Paulsen prepares to publish his memoir, the Hollywood veteran and voice behind some of the...
  2. An Hour With ... Teddy Dorsette III
    President, Detroit Black Deaf Advocates
  3. State of the Arts
  4. A New Noodle Shop on the Block
    Midtown Detroit welcomes Urban Ramen
  5. Gold Standard
    Tucked into an industrial strip in Ann Arbor, a new restaurant offers French fare
  6. In Tune
    Influenced by its storied past, Willis Show Bar sets the tone for a nostalgic sound
  7. Drink Beer, Do Good
    Local breweries and pubs jump on the charity bandwagon
  8. Recipe: Roast Boneless Pork Loin With Tart Cherry Chutney
    Executive chef at Ford’s Garage, Darin Thompson’s boneless pork loin marvel
  9. Business Class
    Trim suits, creative layers, and crisp white shirts - Fall's wardrobe essentials are fitting for...
  10. A-List: Red Alert
    Add some fire to your fall wardrobe with brilliant cherry baubles, moody merlot mules, and more