Presidential Libraries: The Gerald R. Ford Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan

28 Aug

This is the first in a series of guides to three US presidential libraries. Rather than simply talk about the archives themselves, these are intended to offer some guidance to the town/city the library is in, where to eat, drink, and how to get around. This is primarily intended to help those travelling from outside the US. Part 2 will look at the Jimmy Carter Library, Atlanta, Georgia, and part 3 will look at the George H W Bush Library, College Station, Texas.


The Ford Library is located at 1000 Beal Avenue, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 48109, on the North Campus of the University of Michigan. Ann Arbor itself is a great little city, with plenty of accommodation and dining options. There’s also a lot to do beyond visiting the archive (if you have any time spare, that is). Ford is the only presidential library where the archives and the museum are in different cities (the museum is in Grand Rapids, MI).

ford giscard

Presidential relaxation, Gerry Ford style.

How to get there

On both my visits, I travelled via Detroit Metro Wayne County airport, the main air transport hub for the area (located in Romulus, just outside of Detroit proper). Both international and domestic flights arrive at DTW’s two terminals, McNamara and North. Ann Arbor isn’t too far from DTW, and the Michigan Flyer coach service offers regular, cheap shuttle services between the airport and AA’s Blake Transit Center. I’ve never had any problems using the flyer, and the drivers have always been extremely pleasant and helpful. There are also cabs, but that would cost between $60-80 for a single journey. The Flyer is probably the best option.

Where to stay

Ann Arbor has lots of accommodations options, from swanky hotels to cheap motels to apartments for rent. Your favourite booking site will give you a rundown of what’s available. The first time I visited the GRFL, I stayed in University accommodation in the Northwood area. That was convenient, and made cheaper by the fact I was sharing the costs with a friend.

For my 2018 visit, I stayed at the University Inn (not actually owned or operated by the University) just outside of town. I don’t mind a walk to the archive or into town, so this was pretty much ideal. It was clean, quiet, and 45 minutes walk from downtown and a one hour walk from the library (across the lovely Huron River – they have ospreys on the river, which is pretty amazing).

Getting around

A great thing about Ann Arbor is that it is served by the incredibly useful University of Michigan bus service. This lets you get from the city centre to the North Campus quickly and for free. Now, strictly speaking you should be in possession of an M-Card in order to use the service. To be honest, though, nobody seems to care. Everyone I’ve ever spoken to has just said to get on the buses. I’ve never seen anyone asked for a card. I guess that if you’re going to/from the North Campus, there’s an assumption that you’re a student, staff, or working on the campus in another capacity.

The archive

Now, the all-important part. Like all the presidential libraries I’ve visited or corresponded with, the staff at Ford are immensely knowledgable and helpful. While online catalogue’s such as NARA’s NAC can be useful to a certain degree, there’s no replacement for digging in to the extensive and detailed finding aids that the library has available. Once you’ve narrowed your search, do email the library and they’ll be able to provide you with even more information. The more specific you can be about what you want, the more they’ll be able to tell you.

The GRFL staff have also digitised a significant range of documents, including Ford’s pre and post presidency materials. For example, many National Security Study Memoranda and National Security Decision Memoranda have been made available online (some of this material is, by necessity, duplicated in the relevant Foreign Relations of the United States volumes).

When you arrive at the library, you’ll need to sign in at the security desk, then make you way to the upper floor, where the reading room is. You’ll also need to sign-in in the reading room. WiFi is available throughout. If you’re bringing any research papers or notes in with you, remember to let the archivist on duty check through them the first time you bring them in (they will stamp them so it’s clear what they are).

I’ve only ever seen a couple of instances of rude, dismissive behaviour towards archivists, but it does happen. Don’t be that person. The GRFL archivists are all experienced professionals who do the invaluable work that makes scholarly research possible (indeed, many of them carry out research and writing of their own). They deserve our respect and gratitude (and will often know more about a given topic than you do).

Now the all-important question: what do I do for lunch? There aren’t any catering facilities at the GRFL, but just along the road is the Pierpont Commons (for those coming from the UK, the equivalent of the student union building). There are lots of different options for eating here (but avoid the Panda Express – it has a bad rep for causing stomach upsets and more serious ailments in visiting scholars).  There are also shops where you can grab snacks, cold drinks, newspapers, and so on.

While we’re on the subject of the archive, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation offers generous research and travel grants. I’ve been lucky enough to gain these for both of my visits to the GRFL, for which I am extremely grateful. You should always consider applying for a grant. If you contact the library in advance, they’ll be able to give you more detailed information on the holdings relevant to your interests. This will definitely strengthen your application.

Eating and drinking in Ann Arbor

This is just a very short listing of some of my favourite spots. It is of course partial, and restricted by my own limited experience.

What can I say about Ashley’s bar? It’s the eating/drinking place in Ann Arbor that I’ve probably spent the most time in. If you’re a beer enthusiast, this is the place for you. On tap they have a constantly changing range of local, regional, national, and international beers. I can guarantee you’ll find something that you like. Their bar menu is typical US pub fare, ideal for soaking up a few cold IPAs at the end of a hard day researching.

If you’re basing yourself in town, Bigalora might be a bit of a hike (it was just down the road from where I stayed last time). It’s a pizza-focused Italian, which a great range of local and regional beers (always a good thing in my book). They run their pizza ovens at about 500 degrees, and cook their sourdough pizzas for a mere 90 seconds. They are great, though.

I must admit, the notion of a Cuban burger was new to me before I visited Frita Batidos. That being said, I could be converted to having shoestring fries in (not with) my burger from now on. Fresh and tasty, and obviously very popular, you might have to stand for a bit if you’re planning on sitting in at busy times, but they do have a thriving takeaway service as well.

Another bar with a wide range of beer (you can see a pattern developing here, can’t you?) The Jolly Pumpkin bar also has their own micro-brewery. It’s a family-friendly and dog-friendly place, also serving food from their extensive menu.


Zingerman’s: The best salt beef sandwich ever.

If there’s one place in Ann Arbor that you must visit, it’s Zingerman’s Deli. It’s not cheap, and it gets very, very busy, but it serves the best salt beef sandwich I have ever had. Better than any I’ve eaten in New York or London. And the pickles are outstanding. Oh, and they make great coffee as well. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, they also have plenty of options beyond meat based meals (their salads are fantastic), although as may be apparent, they do skew heavily towards a salt beef/pastrami focused menu.

Other things to do

Of course, on a packed research trip, it can be hard to find time for anything beyond archival work, eating, and sleeping. However, Ann Arbor is a lovely place with lots to see and do, so it’s worth taking a break for a morning or afternoon and getting out of the library.


Chipmunk. Well, you don’t get them where I come from.

The Nichols Arboretum is a great place to go for a walk, relax, and see some wildlife (OK, so for someone from central Scotland, a chipmunk is pretty exotic). There’s a wide range of trails to wander along, places to sit, and water fountains if your bottle runs dry. The University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) is wonderfully cool on a hot summer day, and stacked to the rafters with interesting exhibits.

If you have any questions about anything in this brief guide, please do feel free to speak up in the comments section.





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