Over the past academic year, Anthony Erebor, Lyse Messmer, and I have worked as library engagement fellows. We have been working with Librarian Rebecca Price to exhibit a growing collection of 20th-century house catalogs held in the Art, Architecture and Engineering Special Collections. The catalogues, which focus on residential construction in the Midwest from the 1910s through the post-war building boom of the 1950s and 60s, tell many stories: the historical story of Michigan's industrial past transitioning from lumber to automobile; an architectural story about changing patterns and arrangements of domestic space; a sociological story of the gender roles within and outside the household; a racial story of exclusion and expectations; an urban story of the development of suburbia, a transportation story of the impact of the family car form and road systems; a technological story as appliances were integrated into the home; a materials story from construction to furnishing to decoration; and a communications tory in the visual presentation of house plans and their promise.
All in all, Anthony, Lyse and I each brought different perspectives to the table in order to research this collection. Lyse brought a historical and architectural eye to in particular to plans, drawings, and illustrations, and Anthony was very keyed into the language and social, cultural and economic trends in the collection. For all of us housing remains a pertinent issue to explore. We all liked the idea of using the exhibition to engage students and visitors to the library to make connections between the past and [their] present. For my part, I came to the collection because of my interest in curatorial work. I was excited by the prospect of this project because of the opportunity to explore one of my interests--housing--and to gain experience in curatorial work. As a graduating senior this was an important opportunity because I now have a better understanding of curatorial work which will help me as I navigate the post-graduate life and job options.
Rebecca began to collect the catalogs because no other University has a similar collection and she wanted to develop one that would be distinctive to the University. Michigan, as a state, played an important role in the development of the house catalogue throughout the twentieth century. Michigan provided a significant amount of lumber. The catalogs originated, in part, from these lumber companies putting together catalogs to encourage customers to buy from them. Michigan proceeded to exhaust its lumber supply. However, some prominent house catalog companies, such as Aladdin, were founded in Michigan and continued to produce catalogs even after the lumber supply dwindled. In this way, the collection is a very Michigan story. Rebecca engaged Anthony, Lyse, and I to take a first crack at opening up that story.
Our process began in October. No one had yet to sort through or look at the collection which is housed in special collections. The special collections are readily available to Michigan staff, professors, and students. You can hop on MLibrary, search for a catalog, and request to view it. The librarians want the collections to be as accessible as possible. (You don't even need to wear gloves when you visit the collection!) However, the collection is obscure, and unless you know that it’s there, you wouldn't know to look for it online, or how to make use of it once it's in your hands. So, our first task as researchers was to familiarize ourselves with the collection. This process was pretty freeform. We pulled catalogs off the shelf and began to read as many as we could. As we read through the catalogs, we noted down things that stood out to us: language, plans, photos. Next, we would gather to share notes. From these notes, we began to recognize themes within the collections. We would then go back to reading through the collection, but this time with some of these themes and connections in mind. This way, we could be more precise in our reading strategies. Through the fall semester, we brainstormed a whole myriad of potential threads to explore in the collection.
While we continued to familiarize ourselves with the collection, we also began to discuss the exhibition in the hopes that it would also inform our research process. We landed on two potential exhibition organizations: chronological or thematic. Each had benefits and drawbacks. A chronological approach would make it more difficult to draw parallels between different time periods. On the other hand, I was concerned that a thematic approach would pigeonhole the collection. A thematic approach might suggest that the themes were mutually exclusive, when, in reality, they were all connected. For example, the history of technology in the catalogs is also a story about business and culture. That being said, it was important to us that the exhibition be accessible, communicative, and engaging. In the end, we returned to the materials because we knew that it was crucial that our research be grounded in the collection itself. We wanted our research to grow out of the collection rather than trying to lay a narrative over the collection. We had faith that the catalogs would be able to speak for themselves.
This project was also a huge exercise in how to theorize history. While we had faith that the catalogs would be able to speak for themselves, we also struggled with how to convey the urgency of the story the collection tells. One of the primary challenges Rebecca addressed in the beginning was that it would be very easy for the exhibition to fall into a kind of kitschy-nostalgic tone. That is the nature of the collection to the naked eye: bright, colorful, and cheery. Behind this facade of whimsical graphic design is a much more complicated story which has had serious repercussions on the shape of this country as we know it today. Not only do the catalogs document changes in the housing industry throughout the twentieth century, but they also facilitated those changes. Catalogs, for example, promoted FHA loans after the Great Depression which established red-lining in the United States. To this day, red-lining remains one of the most racially exclusive projects this country has ever undertaken. This history did not surprise us. Our greatest challenge and learning curve with the exhibition was figuring out how to accurately represent this political history within the context of the University. In the end, we wanted to present an exhibition which demonstrates how the library can be used as a vehicle to not only tell turbulent stories, but also to equip its visitors with sharper "reading" skills going forward. We are very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to House Catalog Exhibition and to help the library make its collections more visible and accessible!
Rachel London is a Library Engagement Fellow and an Undergraduate Student at the University of Michigan