asa gray portrait copy
Asa Gray collection, 1871-1885; 1844-1886, U-M Special Collections.

This project showcases the European travels of Asa Gray—the first professor at the University of Michigan and the founder of the school’s library collection. Interactive maps and narrative text will transport readers to the early 19th century, when the United States was still in its infancy and newly established states—such as Michigan—wished to found institutions of higher education. In addition to Gray’s journey, this website also highlights the books he and his literary agent purchased in Europe. The Board of Regents appropriated 5,000 dollars for Gray to spend on books while in Europe. Moreover, the selections of Gray and Putnam number approximately 3,400 volumes [1]. Readers can trace the lifecycle of these volumes, beginning in cities like Cambridge, London, Paris and Geneva and ending in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A virtual bookshelf further enables viewers to see a sample of works available in U-M’s Special Collections Library.

As Asa Gray’s biographer, A. Hunter Dupree, writes, “Gray’s educational philosophy was fundamentally a simple desire for more and better science at all levels of schooling” and that Gray had made clear these convictions in his meetings with the U-M Regents [2]. Thus, the Board of Regent’s choice to hire Professor Gray underscores the attitudes of the University’s founders; to create a “modern” institution, the University of Michigan would have to do away with tradition in lieu of innovation.

To begin following in Gray’s footsteps, please click on “Gray’s Voyage.”

[1] Russell E. Bidlack, “The University of Michigan General Library, a History of its Beginnings, 1837-1852.” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1954), 120, 135.

[2] A. Hunter Dupree, Asa Gray, 1810-1888. (Cambridge, MA.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959), 78.