Well-Read: A brief history of A2 libraries from the book "Vanishing Ann Arbor"


Ladies Library Association, 1885

In 1866, 35 women had put in $3 each to start the Ladies' Library Association and pledged a dollar a year to purchase books for the public to borrow. After moving from one location to another, the Ladies' Library (since demolished) was built at 324 East Huron, on the south side west of Division in 1885. Frame location: Corner of State and Huron, Northwest. This image may be protected by copyright law. Contact the Bentley Historical Library for permission to reproduce, display or transmit this image. Repository: Bentley Historical Library.

The following is an excerpt from the book "Vanishing Ann Arbor" by Patti Smith and Britain Woodman.

Just three years after Allen and Rumsey founded our fair city in 1824, a group called the Ann Arbor Library Association began meeting. This was not a public library as we know it; it relied upon the dues paid by patrons. Using the dues it collected, the association purchased 100 books by 1830.

Around the same time, the Ann Arbor Circulating Library sprang up at the office of the Western Emigrant (the first newspaper in Ann Arbor). Dues were $2.50 per year and were mainly used to purchase reference books. The following decade produced another Ann Arbor Library Association and the Working Men’s Library Association. Like that very first group, these were not funded by taxes but by private dues and donations. However, government-sponsored public libraries were coming soon.

In 1843, the state school superintendent decreed that all school districts had to set up their own libraries, earmark at least $25 for the collections, and share the books with local townships. Since these were to be public, non-dues-paying organizations, the state government announced two years later that various collected fines by local government units would go to the libraries. (The only exception was in cases where the monies were instead needed for the local poorhouse.)

Our local school district began purchasing books as early as March 1844, as reported by the Michigan State Journal. Twelve years later, in 1856, the Ann Arbor School District’s library books were consolidated into a space in the first public high school, the Union School on State Street between Washington and Huron Streets. Because this new space was open to the public, 1856 is the date generally given as the beginning of the public library system in Ann Arbor.

In 1877, the Michigan Argus reported that a teacher at the school was charged with the school district library’s keeping. At that time, around 600 books were available, about 250 of which were checked out at any given time. Teachers kept the library open once a week while school was in session except when they closed it to “call in the books.” In 1876, an average of 48.6 books was lent each week, with a high of 92 books lent during the last week of the year. Scott, Dickens, and Hawthorne were almost always checked out, as were travel books and books of essays. No taxes were levied for the library, nor were general school funds used -- the only money used for the acquisition of new books came from the “small quota” of fines that came through the county treasurer, as per the state requirement discussed above. Apparently, it was not much, because the Michigan Argus rather sarcastically noted that our county was either full of law-abiding citizens or else didn’t impose or collect fines like other counties, because the funds just weren’t making their way to the library. The paper advocated that more money should be made available so that the holdings could be increased and the library open one full afternoon and one full evening at least once per week for the entire year.

Ann Arbor's Carnegie Library, 1907

Ann Arbor's Carnegie Library, serving both the high school and the general public, opened in 1907. It was the only library donated by Andrew Carnegie that was attached to another building. Frame location: Corner of State and Huron, Northwest. This image may be protected by copyright law. Contact the Bentley Historical Library for permission to reproduce, display or transmit this image. Repository: Bentley Historical Library.

The following year, the Michigan Argus printed the report of our local superintendent. He described the library as being “well selected [and] well patronized” but too small. Only $59.60 worth of fines were received the prior year, so he asked the school board to appropriate $100 per year to enlarge the collection and allow it to “finally become a credit to the city.”

Finances must have improved for the school district library, as it hired Nellie Loving to supervise its collection of books in 1883. Her first task was overseeing the move of the 2,000-book collection from the superintendent’s office to a space on the second floor. Loving spent almost 40 years working in our library system, becoming a beloved librarian and the namesake of the Loving Branch (replaced by the Malletts Creek Branch in 2004).

An Ann Arbor Courier article from 1886 announced “good reading free!” at the library, which had grown to 2,500 books with “almost an entire absence of what is known as ‘trash’.” There were some rules to be followed: one had to be at least 14 years old to check out a book, only one book could be checked out at a time, and one could not lend it to someone else. There was a two-week maximum check out time, with a 10-cent-per-week fee if a book was not returned on time, and one was liable for damages if the book was harmed while under their care. On regular school days, patrons could check out a book from 8:30 am until 1 pm, and while students were the primary consumers, the “good natured librarian” would attend to calls “at any time.” The general public could come by on Wednesday from 4 to 5 pm. Loving reported that there were 10,000 checkouts per year, which may have accounted for the “well worn and discolored” books.

By this time, the library was funded by fines, dog tax money, and appropriations at annual school meetings. The Courier called for “some scheme” to be invented to produce a permanent fund for the library.

In 1889, builders completed an addition to the school that included a room set aside for the library. In 1904, during the time that the board of education was working to put a Carnegie library next to the high school, both the school and the library room burned down. Fortunately, most of the library’s holdings (by then over 8,000 books) were saved. In 1905, Carnegie guaranteed the funds, and voters later approved a bond for a new school. When the buildings reopened in 1906, they were connected by a passageway and fireproof door. 

Join "Vanishing Ann Arbor" authors Patti Smith and Britain Woodman as they take you on a tour of our city’s past, from Bach & Abel’s dry goods store to Aunt Agatha’s bookstore, on Thursday, July 25, 7-8:30 pm at AADL's downtown location. Books will be available to purchase.

➥ "History of the Ann Arbor Library, 1827-1991" [aadl.org]