The origin 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 printed 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 served more than thirty years, stepping down in 2013, to be succeeded by Terrence J. McDonald, the former dean of the College of Literature, Science and the Arts.
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 a structure of four divisions (MHC, UARP, Reference and Access, and Preservation and Conservation) under the broader designation of the Bentley Historical Library (BHL).
In 2004, an addition to the Bentley Historical Library's building was completed. This project increased the storage capacity for the library's collections and provided new offices for staff members of UARP. The new wing's dedication coincided with the publication of The Bentley Historical Library: Its History and Purpose, an in-depth review of the library and its collections.
Francis Blouin also oversaw the creation of the Digital Curation Division in 2011. The unit was given responsibility for implementing solutions for the long-term preservation and management of the library's digital assets. Digital Curation supports the mission of the library's other branches by administering born digital and digitized materials for the University Archives and Michigan Historical Collections and also promoting access to digital archives for Reference and Access Services.
In September 2013 Terrence J. McDonald, former Dean of the university's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, assumed the directorship of the Bentley Historical Library. Under his leadership, the library hired its first development officer and participated in the university's Victors for Michigan capital campaign. McDonald also oversaw the reorganization of, the library's units in the summer of 2014. The Academic Programs and Collection Development division assumed responsibility for classroom instruction, reference and access services, outreach, and field work at the University of Michigan and around the state. The Curation division rationalized the processing activities of the MHC, UARP and the Digital Curation Division, incorporating procedures for both physical and digital archives, and also assumed responsibility for web archiving and digitization activities.
Directors of the MHC / BHL:
||Lewis G. Vander Velde
||F. Clever Bald
||Robert M. Warner
||Richard M. Doolen (acting)
||Francis X. Blouin, Jr.
||Terrance J. McDonald
||Nancy R. Bartlett (Interim)