John Fierst will retire as the reference librarian of the Clarke Historical Library on July 31. Over a fifteen-year career as reference librarian, John has interacted with literally thousands of researchers, from the unfortunate undergraduate who suddenly realized that their term paper was due the next morning to scholars who have spent months in the library, and whose work resulted in significant historical publications.
What John truly excelled at was relationships that developed over years and blossomed in unexpected and glorious ways. One of many stories is his relationship with now-retired federal Judge Avern Cohn, and their mutual interest in Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville was the famed author of Democracy in America. In addition to his most famous work, Tocqueville also wrote Two Weeks in the Wilderness, which described his visit to Michigan and the journey on horseback he and a friend took from Detroit to Saginaw from July 23 to July 31, 1831. Judge Cohn was fascinated by the visit and repeatedly turned to John for help documenting the trip. Eventually, the Judge asked who might be able to make maps of the journey for him, and John suggested Larry Wycoff, a skilled mapmaker of John’s acquaintance. The maps were eventually made and displayed at a plenary session of the Historical Society of Michigan, where Judge Cohn announced that he and John planned a major exhibit on the subject.
John’s memory was slightly different – they had discussed an exhibit, not exactly planned it. Be that as it may, the Clarke Historical Library happily embraced the possibility of an exhibit built about Tocqueville’s visit to our state. With Judge Cohn’s generous financial support, John curated the exhibit, Aristocracy on the Saginaw Trail: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Journey to Michigan. The marvelous exhibit catalog, that John authored can be seen at clarke.cmich.edu/saginawtrail.
It was this kind of relationship, begun with a simple reference question, that John excelled at developing over an extended period of time. It is a gift that the library will greatly miss.
His own research made him an expert in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century relations between the Indigenous communities of the Great Lakes region and the European and American governments which claimed sovereignty over Native land. A superb editor of historical documents, John has spent many years working with the journal of John Tanner. Shaw-shaw-wa-ne-ba-se (Zhaashaawanibiisi ) (c. 1780 – c. 1846), as he was named in the Ojibwe community, was a boy captured in Kentucky by Ojibwe men. He grew up in the Ojibwe nation, married an Ojibwe woman, and eventually served as a guide and interpreter for people who only spoke English. His story, A Narrative of the Captivity and adventures of John Tanner…, was published in 1830 and remains an important historical record.
Because of his research, John has visited many special collections libraries and archives like the Clarke. From his personal experience, he knows what researchers expect from a place like the Clarke—he has walked many miles in their researcher shoes. Informed by this, he has worked to make reference in the Clarkean enjoyable and fruitful endeavor for every researcher who has reached out to the library. There is no doubt that savvy and experienced researchers recognize this as a major asset for not only the Clarke Historical Library, but for the field of historical and cultural research in Michigan and the Great Lakes region.
We will miss John’s knowledge, wisdom, and his good advice. We wish him well in retirement.