A small sign saying “Closed for Renovations” is taped to the enormous front door of the U-M’s Clements Library. Kevin Graffagnino unlocks it and leads the way into the Great Room.

It’s not looking so great today. The ornate paneling and high vaulted ceiling are still here, but the chandeliers are dimmed, the carpets are gone, the furniture stacked up and covered in plastic.

Graffagnino leads me into the neighboring Rare Books Room, the inner sanctum where the library’s most precious treasures are laid on a massive wooden table for donors and dignitaries to admire. It is magnificent on most days. Today, though, most of the Clements’ priceless collection of early Americana has left the building.

Some pieces, like a 1493 letter from Christopher Columbus, were collected by U-M regent William Clements himself. Others were added by Graffagnino and his predecessors as director. Now they’re all being unpacked at an office building on Ellsworth Rd., where the library will be for the next two years.

On the table where rare books are usually reverentially displayed sits one of the ugliest bowls I have ever seen.

“This thing was in the ladies’ restroom,” says Graffagnino. “It may be worth millions of dollars for all I know. I assume [it dates from the] early twentieth century. It’s got cracks, it’s got holes. It’s hideous.” And he laughs a great big laugh.

Graffagnino laughs a lot. “Some people think I don’t take the work seriously,” he says. “That’s not it. I don’t take myself seriously.”

Graffagnino was brought in five years ago in part because he wasn’t intimidated by moving an irreplaceable collection–this is the fourth time he’s done it. Packing up the Clements, he says, was “a little more complicated than some of the others, but not all. We moved a library and a museum in Kentucky down the street, oh, 500 yards. You’re dealing with valuable material, and if something gets damaged, you just can’t rush over to Barnes and Noble and buy a replacement. You have to take real care with the things. We are going to do it right rather than fast.”

Today, the Corrigan truck is parked out back. “We were moving from the front when we were moving the Great Room,” Graffagnino explains. “Now we’re moving collections out of the basement. We’ll probably have four or five loaded trucks leave here and go down to Ellsworth during the course of the day.”

Though delicate, most of the books in the Rare Book Room were fairly small, and so “were pretty easy” to pack. Today, most of the empty Corrigan carts parked around the building will be filled with oversize volumes. “Now we’re moving books this big,” Graffagnino says, stretching his arms wide. “It can go more slowly because you can’t put nearly as much on a truck.”

Corrigan’s crew will roll the carts on and off the truck. All the packing and unpacking, though, is being done by the Clements’ seventeen-person staff. It’s been a challenge for a group of not-so-young booklovers. “It’s a sad thing, but I may be one of the stronger guys,” says Graffagnino, fifty-eight.

“There are no ex-Big Ten football players on our staff. We could have used a few.”

Ann Arbor native William Clements graduated from the U-M in 1882 with a degree in engineering. He eventually took over his father’s Bay City Industrial Works firm, where he made a fortune supplying equipment for the construction of the Panama Canal and other engineering projects. In 1909 he was elected to the U-M Board of Regents.

Clements built the library to house his personal collection: 20,000 rare books, 2,000 volumes of early newspapers, maps, manuscripts, and more. The gift agreement specified that the library would be “dedicated to collecting and preserving primary sources for early American history,” open only to “advanced scholars,” and “independent from the University’s library system.”

Graffagnino is just the library’s fourth director. Randolph Adams, appointed by Clements himself, ran the library from 1923 until his death in 1951. His successor, Howard Peckham, retired in 1977. The third director, John Dann, stayed thirty years. “It’s a terminal job,” Graffagnino once joked. “You either retire, or you die.”

“Each director reflects the times,” says Clayton Lewis, who curates the graphics and photography collection. “William Clements himself is probably spinning in his grave over what has happened to his library in the last fifty years.”

“When Mr. Clements was collecting,” Graffagnino says, “you studied politics, military, men, white men. And that’s changed dramatically in the last half century. A great deal of the use of our collections is now in fields of social history, race, ethnicity, and gender.

“The extraordinary thing is that the things that [Clements] collected … also turned out to have enormously wonderful material in them about great social history. He collected American Revolution manuscripts at a level that nobody else can match. But there’s wonderful material in them about the Caucasian experience interacting with Native Americans, with food and drink, with African Americans, the role of women in all of these things.”

Dann, says Graffagnino, “collected like nobody’s business. Mr. Clements really stopped chronologically about 1800–he collected from Columbus through the eighteenth century. And Dr. Adams, Dr. Peckham, Dr. Dann, all inched us forward, chronologically, to about 1900.”

In the process, “Dann absolutely transformed the library,” says Lewis.

“It was partly the volume of the material he added to it, but I think he very much broadened the collection in terms of the nineteenth-century social movements, things like temperance and anti-slavery and the various religious movements, the spiritualist movement, popular culture–a lot of different things that, in the earlier days, Clements was not interested in.

“Certainly Clements himself would have turned up his nose at most of this,” adds Lewis. “But under John Dann it became a central focus.”

As the library’s collection grew–and researchers looked at it with fresh eyes–the Clements remained an enigma to many on campus. “When I started here, I took one of the walking tours,” Graffagnino recalls. “The young lady student who was leading the tour stops in front of this building [with her group of] twenty people or so. She looks at it and says, ‘I have no idea what that building is. Let’s move on.’ ”

Appalled, Graffagnino sent her boss information on the Clements. There are only “five or six libraries on the planet [that] do early American history at the Clements’ level,” he explains. “There is no better job in America for what I do.”

Graffagnino grew up in a house filled with books in Montpelier, Vermont. It was also, he says, “the only house in Vermont that had a ticker tape machine in it [because his father] looked at his investments all day long! He inherited, and made [money] investing in the stock market. Mom? She did the same thing!”

His brother followed their lead, and is now “an investment guy in Florida.” But Graffagnino “loved history as a kid, thought the old books on shelves were really neat. They were old, interesting. My brother was only interested in how much they were worth: ‘They’re just books. Let’s just sell them and make more money.'”

Graffagnino started out collecting coins and stamps, then moved on to books. While still in high school, he started his own used-book business.

When one of his first visitors told him she specialized in Vermont history, he decided to do the same. “I was seventeen … Had she said, ‘French literature,’ my career might have gone a whole different way.”

As an undergrad at the University of Vermont, he met his future wife, Leslie Hasker, in a bar in Burlington. After adding a master’s in history, he was hired as curator of the university’s Vermont collection. After seventeen years there–during which he also earned a PhD at the University of Massachusetts–he moved to Madison to run the state historical society library and from there to Kentucky. Then, “Vermont called and said, ‘Come home.'” He’d been back for five years when the Clements called.

Modeled on an Italian villa, the building was as beautiful as ever, but it was getting old, and crowded. Most employees worked in the basement–which sometimes flooded.

“I was very fortunate that I came at a time when the university wanted to significantly increase its support of the Clements,” says Graffagnino. He credits Teresa Sullivan, “a provost who really liked research libraries.” Sullivan, now president of the University of Virginia, “increased the budget by about 45 percent,” allowing him to hire the library’s first development director, Ann Rock.

Fundraising was necessary. Though the university had also committed $10 million toward a renovation, estimates for the cost of the most basic updates to the building’s structure and utilities “came out at $11.5 million,” Graffagnino recalls. “So we needed a million and a half.”

He turned first to the library’s Associates Board of Governors. Members raise funds for acquisitions, serve as ambassadors for the Clements, and, says John Dann, “are a little bit of a sounding board for the director.”

Led by local philanthropist Peter Heydon, the associates contributed $800,000. The Colorado-based Avenir Foundation, which had a longstanding relationship with Dann, put in $6 million. “Getting to $16.8 million allowed us to have the addition,” Graffagnino says–two stories, underground, for storage and mechanicals.

That will free up room in the original building for staff and researchers. Associate director Brian Dunnigan “has an office about the size of that safe,” he says, pointing to the phone-booth size vault in the Rare Books Room. In the new building, he’ll have “a space where he can actually put a chair in” for a visitor.

Graffagnino also decided–over some opposition–to give part of the Great Room to the researchers. “There are some people who were saying, ‘that’s a sacred place,'” Graffagnino acknowledges. “Well, a sacred place, to me, evokes a cathedral. And if I said the cathedral is never going to be open for services in whatever religion you built this for, I would consider that against the mission of the building.” So when the renamed Avenir Room reopens in 2015, scholars will find worktables with bright reading lights, plugs for their laptops, and computer terminals nearby serving as card catalogues.

Graffagnino’s most controversial initiative, though, is to bring the library closer to the rest of the university. “John [Dann] was a contrarian,” says Peter Heydon. “He was deeply suspicious of the university trying to take over the library–and to a certain extent, Kevin has permitted some of that to happen.”

“When I started, there were some people on the [associates] board who thought the Clements was not the property of the university,” Graffagnino recalls. “So I photocopied the [gift] agreement for them … and every one of them looked at me and said, ‘Grrr. You little stinker. You’re right!'”

He acknowledges the fear, dating back to Clements himself, “that someday the university is going to reorganize us into the library system. But as he sees it, “the way to avoid being reorganized is to be the strongest, most successful, most collegial, most U-M-happy library on this campus.

“You embrace the university and say, ‘We’re blue and maize one hundred percent’–and the university is enhanced by us rather than annoyed by us.”

Embracing the university means making the Clements’ resources available to more people on campus–including a group Clements himself shunned: “The university wants us to–and we want to as well–get more undergraduates engaged in looking at [and] using the Clements collections,” Graffagnino says.

Once the temporary location on Ellsworth opens at the end of September, the staff will get to work on an expanded digitization program. “We are reaching out to the faculty and saying, ‘You’re teaching the American Civil War next semester,” Graffagnino says. “‘What fifty things do you want available to your students electronically so they can use them when we’re not open?’

“I’m going to miss this building for two years,” he admits as the conversation winds down. “I’ll be in basically an office warehouse building. I won’t have this [Rare Book] room to sit in and I won’t have that [Great] room to walk out into.”

He says he’s received, and rejected, many offers from other institutions. “A couple of times I had to gulp at the salaries I was turning down,” he says, but “if you want to create something, if you want to build a legacy, you can’t hop every five years.

“This is just a special place to be,” he adds. “They build libraries now that are steel and glass rectangles. They’re functional, but this has elegance. This is the way a history library ought to look.

“Yeah, you give up some things,” he says. “These cases aren’t deep enough. They won’t shelve some sized books. And sometimes the locks stick.

“That sort of stuff I’ll take that any day. That’s not going to change.”