Recently, someone called the U-M’s Bentley Historical Library offering to donate a family quilt. The library declined–it doesn’t accept three-dimensional objects–but other would-be donors call every day, say staffers at the Bentley, whose 11,000 research collections archive the history of both the university and the state.

“People offer me their yearbooks,” says lead archivist for collection Aprille McKay. They also want to donate decades-old programs from U-M concerts, posters that advertise long-ago lectures, personal diaries and letters, and postcards of Ann Arbor or U-M landmarks. Though many such items duplicate materials the Bentley already possesses, surprises can turn up. Recently, someone called from the Marine Hydrodynamics Laboratory in West Hall to say that there were cleaning out an old file room. “They allowed us to survey what we thought was of historical value,” McKay emails. She went over and found “some real gold nuggets”–including a technical drawing of what appeared to be a World War II-era Japanese ship. U-M researchers seem to have “tried to construct a model of a Japanese ship based on observations,” says McKay, perhaps to test in the tank.

McKay has a special fondness for old student scrapbooks, especially popular in the first two decades of the twentieth century. “I think they are so much fun–all of the theater programs and all of the dance cards and photographs of students holding hands, in a different era.”

Though the library has scanned many of its historic photos for its online image bank, so far it’s digitized less than 1 percent of its holdings. Some obstacles to that process are physical: “There are books and documents on highly acidic paper that’s really brittle,” says Matt Adair, the Bentley’s lead archivist for digitization. “Turning the page would actually break the page.” But there are less tangible issues as well. “We’re really trying to work this out,” Adair says. “Certain emotions are brought out by being able to handle these [original items]. Digital media provides the information. It doesn’t provide the same experience.”