Detroit Public Library's National Automotive History Collection

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By Barbara Thompson, Assistant Manager, Detroit Public Library, National Automotive History Collection.

Preserving the history of wheeled land transportation is the mission of the Detroit Public Library’s National Automotive History Collection (NAHC). The largest public automotive archive in the world, the NAHC is located on the second floor of the beautifully renovated Rose & Robert Skillman Branch in downtown Detroit. The Smith Group, successor firm to Smith Hinchman, and Grylls, the same architectural firm that designed the building in 1931, conducted the renovation.

This quote from the Library’s first purchased book on the automobile, John Henry Knight’s Notes on Motor Carriages: With Hints for Purchases and Users, 1896, illustrates some early thinking about the new-fangled horseless carriage and shows just how far the automobile has come: “The great advantage of the mechanical carriage is that when not in use it costs nothing; whereas a horse standing day by day in the stable proverbially eats his head off.” The information available in the NAHC now runs the gamut from the early days of the horseless carriage to the fuel-efficient hybrids produced for today’s market.

To serve automobile historians, hobbyists, journalists, and home mechanics, the NAHC collects factory service manuals, owners’ manuals, motor vehicle specifications, sales literature, photographs, books, automotive memorabilia, biographies, artwork, business papers, and manuscripts. Some of the more notable manuscript collections include the papers of Charles E. Duryea, who with his brother Frank produced America’s first gasoline car, and the recently opened papers of General William Knudsen and his son, Semon (Bunkie) Knudsen, both of whom had connections to General Motors Corp.

Automobile photography forms an important part of the collection, and NAHC photographs are frequently reprinted in books and articles. Researchers can access historical automobile and factory images, current product images and racing photos, as well as unique collections such as the early 20th century auto sports photography of Nathan Lazarnick.

The NAHC was developed with the donation of factory service manuals from the domestic and foreign automobile companies, and it also incorporated the library of the defunct Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, an invaluable gift.

The Friends of the NAHC, a special sub-group of the Friends of the Detroit Public Library Foundation, also provide funding for special exhibits and events such as the current photo exhibit, “Postcards from Detroit: Remembering Formula I in the Motor City.” In addition, DPL supplies a generous annual budget for books and periodicals.

With a staff consisting of the coordinator for special collections, an assistant manager, a librarian/archivist, a clerk, and two clerical assistants, the NAHC is able to answer reference questions from around the world. Small service and copying fees sometimes apply.

National Automotive History Collection Detroit Public Library-Skillman Branch
121 Gratiot Ave. Detroit, MI 48226
(313) 628-2851
Labor Day to Memorial Day: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Thursday, Saturday
Summer: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday

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