Beyond Books: Materials in the Library

Photo of materials in the Materials Collection

The Materials Collection at the Art, Architecture and Engineering Library has vast potential as a learning resource. I interviewed Rebecca Price, the collection’s curator, to get her thoughts about how faculty, students, and visitors can profit from the collection’s existence at U-M Library.

  • What kinds of things are available in the Materials Collection?

    Photo of green cotton material
    Recycled cotton material

The core of our Materials Collection comes from Material ConneXion, a global materials library of innovative, forward-thinking materials that they seek out from developers around the globe. We have about 300 of their materials on display and another 300 or so in storage. We also add materials that we find through other vendors or direct from the manufacturer. These include basic examples such as copper or aluminum. We also have some specialized products developed for NASA or other high technology uses.  

  • Why did U-M Library create the Materials Collection?

We developed the Materials Collection to support creative endeavors across the university. Our students and faculty are not only developing their own materials, but are creating products and applications based on advances in materials research. We hope that the materials we provide inspire and inform the creative process, and potentially serve to develop new products.  

  • What can individual students or visitors to AAEL do with the collection?

Photo of aerogel material
Aerogel material on textured glass material

Students and visitors can come by to see, touch, explore, and compare the materials that we have on hand. It's a tactile, physical experience. So much of what we do now is virtual -- but materials have to be seen and felt. You have to get a sense of weight, texture, suppleness or stiffness, color and light. This collection allows that type of exploration. We also provide access to the Material ConneXion database, where one can find extensive information about each material as well as contact information to the manufacturer. U-M students and faculty can access the database from anywhere and visitors can use it on a guest computer. We're happy to help students and faculty contact the manufacturer should they want a sample for their own work.

  • What have classes done with the collection, and do you have other ideas for how professors could integrate the collection into their classes?

We've helped a class for which the students were developing sustainable, biodegradable packaging. Another class explored materials with which they could produce wayfinding and signage solutions. We've also helped students find materials for fabrication or construction projects from costume design to structural components. I think the collection could be used in classes and studios as students are looking for new solutions to old problems, or new solutions to new challenges. Often materials developed for one use can be applied to other unexpected uses.

  • As of today, what is your favorite item in the collection?

    Photo of snail excrement material
    Snail excrement material

There are several that I would count as favorites! High on the list is a spongy, natural material made from snail excrement. It's used for floor padding and is multi-colored due to the pigments of the cellulose paper fed to the snails. Another favorite is aerogel, a synthetic ultralight material. It's truly as light as smoke. The newest thing is materials that have embedded electronics (wearable electronics and smart fabrics), so we're working to acquire samples of a variety of those.


You can visit the Materials Collection on the 2nd floor of the Duderstadt Center, across from the Service Desk. If you have any further questions about the Materials Collection, you can visit the Materials Collection Research Guide or contact Rebecca at