Librarian doesn't begin to cover what Tim Gleisner does. The history buff and trivia king manages special collections at the Grand Rapids Public Library while holding a wealth of local knowledge in the file cabinet in his brain. Stephanie Doublestein gets his perspective on river restoration and the importance of history, plus shares a peek inside the archives, in this week's feature.
Trust me on this: If you ever find yourself playing a game of Jeopardy when the category is Grand Rapids history, you want Tim Gleisner on your team. Though he's only been in his role as Head of Special Collections at the Grand Rapids Public Library for seven years, his knowledge of everything from local Native American tribes to Lucius Lyon to the history of Grandville Avenue is impressive.
A lifelong history buff, Gleisner spends his days on the fourth floor of GRPL's main branch doing a variety of tasks: supervising staff, interns, and volunteers; processing collections; speaking to various civic groups, government leaders, churches, and foundations throughout Kent County; and working with donors to solicit collections or create permanent catalogues of local documents, photos, maps, and the like. He's surrounded by file cabinets that say things such as, "Obituaries, 1930-1970," a whole room devoted to furniture and design history, and things like the first known map of Grand Rapids, lying carefully in a drawer where the temperature is always 60 degrees. It's a job that suits him perfectly, though he took a circuitous route to get here.
"Starting in sixth grade, I would get on the number 15 bus and go downtown on a Monday, which was free museum day, with the library across the street," says Gleisner, who grew up in Milwaukee. "I'd go into the museum and then spend time at the library. I would explore any topic – it didn't matter – it could be history of the East India Company, history of the Great Lakes, I just wanted to absorb it."
As his love of history grew, his interest in school waned; Gleisner dropped out of high school before eventually earning his GED, high-school equivalency, and then a bachelors degree in history and a masters degree in library science with an emphasis in archival work, both from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"My life's never been one direct route," Gleisner laughs. "Unfortunately it either leads you into a profession like this or a Cliff Claven role in the world." And though Gleisner can hold forth from a bar stool on the history of a West Side cathedral or Latino immigration patterns, keeping listeners fascinated while tying historical events to current issues, he combines a love of trivia with a passion for community.
"A big philosophy that undergirds what I do is everyone should have pride of place," he says. "All places have important stories and contribute to the dialogue of our country and I really do believe Grand Rapids gets a bum rap in that regard."
With the archives
at his fingertips – and that means over a million photos and untold boxes of maps, obituaries, real estate documents, and records – Gleisner is in a position to fully understand the depth and breadth of local history in West Michigan.
"We have this real view of the city being this very stalwart, conservative place, which it has been, but at the same time what's always surprising to me is if something was happening in Detroit, Milwaukee, or Chicago, there would be some permutation happening here in Grand Rapids," he says.
As examples of things the average citizen might not know happened here, he cites socialist speeches to labor groups, FBI agents in 1930s-era social halls trying to suss out local communists, and black lists of local residents whose politics got them fired. Follow him around the city on a tour, and you'll learn that the river used to flow all the way over to Rosa Parks Circle or discover how waves of immigration changed a single neighborhood over time.
Gleisner and his team are able to accurately understand, record, and preserve history like this thanks to donations from individuals, nonprofits, and institutions in the area. He's worked with a doctoral student seeking information about the Grand Rapids Latino population for a thesis, helped an out-of-state researcher interested in the Lebanese Orthodox Christians who settled on Grandville Avenue recreate the neighborhood as it used to exist, and everyday Grand Rapidians research their family history.
No matter what, he loves a challenge – which it can be, sometimes, to convince donors that their precious papers should live in the temperature-controlled archives forever. "Usually we'll go into rooms that have steam pipes right above the items, materials will be dispersed throughout the building . . . one organization I dealt with recently wanted to give their collections to us, so they started looking around and finding things tucked into a corner since the 1880s that they didn't know were there." Gleisner and his staff bring order to the archives, plus work to put an ever-growing selection of images and documents online
for easy public access.
This is his favorite part of the job: Not every day, but occasionally, someone will email Gleisner or bring in a donation as a gift, something the library didn't even know existed. He cites a set of maps of the city circa 1874, lingering for years in an attic, gifted to the collection last winter that gave the library new details about downtown. He believes knowing about the past – the people, places, and events – is important for making decisions today, too.
"You look at the West Side. Right now it's undergoing huge amounts of redevelopment and there's some angst about that. I would say that angst comes from the fact that it's historically been more working-class, the highway cuts through it, knowing that there are important differences between the two sides of town," he says. "Look at the recent mayoral race and just know that there's always been a dynamic of division between two sides of town."
Which bring us to another spot in Grand Rapids Gleisner says is full of history: the river, which has probably changed over time far more than today's residents know. "There used to be islands there. The very bed of the river itself has been greatly altered. We have a map from 1719 that shows that this was the transit point for the Native Americans. It's cool because we got our water power off it, and to think there were belts that were going overhead and across streets to water wheels."
What does he think of the current river restoration plans calling for restoring the rapids and increasing access to the river along its banks? "I find it funny because you see people who think it will be that way forever. People who put the dams in the river in the 1920s thought it would be a beautiful, reflective pool that would never flood again. Now we think it looks kind of dormant, and we think rapids will be good for the economy and boost tourism. I'm amazed by people not realizing our descendants might think, why did they change the river like that?
One thing's for sure: no matter what the river -- and the city -- will look like in the future, Gleisner is one person in town whose job ensures we'll be well-informed about its past.
Stephanie Doublestein is the managing editor of Rapid Growth Media.
Photo courtesy of Tim Gleisner/Grand Rapids Public Library.