The origins of the Bentley Historical Library (BHL) can be traced to two related projects initiated in the 1930s at the University of Michigan. In early 1934, Professor Lewis G. Vander Velde successfully applied for a $700 grant to locate and collect primary source material relating to the history of Michigan. Approximately a year later, in November 1935, University of Michigan President Alexander Ruthven appointed a Committee on University Archives and authorized it to gather together the university's historical records. Vander Velde served as secretary to this committee. Space was set aside in the William L. Clements Library for both projects, and Vander Velde, with the assistance of a single graduate student, undertook both projects. In June 1938, the two enterprises moved into three rooms of the newly completed Rackham Building. That same year the Regents named the endeavor the Michigan Historical Collections (MHC). In 1973, the library moved from its quarters in the Rackham Building into the newly completed Bentley Historical Library on the university's north campus. For the first time, the MHC had for a home a facility designed and built for the processing and use of the manuscript and archival materials that it had been collecting for nearly forty years.
In the formative years of the MHC, Vander Velde supervised a surprisingly large staff. Funds from the Works Progress Administration made possible the hiring of a large number of special assistants. In 1939, twenty individuals were packing, processing, and cleaning records as they were collected. Although World War II quickly drained away the funds used to pay these many employees, a great deal of work was accomplished and Vander Velde retained some professional assistance. In 1938 or 1939, Vander Velde hired a full-time assistant primarily to collect historical records. In 1951, he added a permanent printed works librarian to the staff.
In 1947, Vander Velde was appointed chair of the university's history department. To lighten his administrative burden at the MHC, F. Clever Bald was appointed to the newly created post, assistant director. Vander Velde retained the title of director of the MHC until 1960, when he retired and was succeeded by Bald. In 1966 Bald retired and was succeeded by Robert M. Warner. In 1980, Warner resigned as director to become head of the National Archives. Richard Doolen served as acting director until 1981 when Francis X. Blouin, Jr. became the fourth director of the BHL. Blouin would serve as director until 2013.
In 1979, a separate program for the administration of the university archives was formally established. The University Archives and Records Program (UARP) became a separate division alongside the MHC, which continued to focus on documenting the state of Michigan. Reference services and conservation were reconfigured as divisions providing the current structure of four divisions (MHC, UARP, Reference and Access, and Preservation and Conservation) under the broader designation of the Bentley Historical Library (BHL). A fifth division, Digital Curation was added to the BHL in April 2011 to handle the preservation and archiving of digital records.
Issued in 2004 on the occasion of the dedication of an addition to its building The Bentley Historical Library Its History and Purpose provides a more complete history of the Bentley Historical Library. There is further detail about the Bentley and its functions on its home page at http://bentley.umich.edu.