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Library Group Observing Centennial

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Thursday April 7, 1966

Library Group Observing Centennial 

By Al Lubowitz

The Ladies' Library Association of Ann Arbor is celebrating its 100th birthday this year.

Its beginnings go back to 1866 when the population of Ann Arbor was just under 6000 and the idea of a library was still an intellectual luxury for most communities. 

In that post Civil War year, only 42 years after Ann Arbor was founded, some 35 local ladies, who felt a need for a municipal book collection, organized a Ladies' Library Association. 

The ladies met in the First Presbyterian Church, drafted a constitution, elected officers, and started a library with a subscription of $118.

Established as a subscription library, it followed a pattern common to the United States at that time. Benjamin Franklin was the first to found such a library in Philadelphia in 1731, and the idea was widely accepted. 

Dues were $3 a year and the first books donated to the library were six volumes of Hume's History of England. 

The need for additional money was solved by Easter and Christmas fairs, lectures, cantatas, strawberry festivals, "kermises," and donations. 

At the end of the first year, $780 had been raised and 346 volumes had been purchased.

At the end of 1867, the books in the library numbered 1636, and the ladies had moved to larger quarters over the First National Bank. 

The idea of a free public library first appeared in the secretary's report of 1868. "We earnestly hope that ... the city authorities may see the importance of matching an annual appropriation for the support of an institution which is already a public benefit. How much more shall it be so when it can be supported as a Free Library open to all."

Two years later, the ladies proposed that the City Council take over the subscription library and make it a public one, but the proposition was refused. 

The Ladies' Library Association continued growing and, when in 1879 the Board of Education offered to combine the school district library (then located in the Court House) and the Ladies' Library, the association in its turn refused. 

Instead, a year later, the ladies purchased a lot at 324 E. Huron and in 1885 they erected a building. The brick structure, costing $4268, was designed in Romanesque revival style by the Detroit architect Gordon W. Lloyd.

A description in the local paper of the interior of the library ran as follows: " ... the pretty building, well heated and lighted, quiet and quaint in its restful colorings of tans and browns, and carved woodwork, and its cheerful grate fire in its arched alcove, with, above all its distinctive air of refinement ..."

Still the ladies had not discarded the idea of a free public library. 

In a meeting held in 1902, Mrs. Anna Botsford Bach made the proposal that the association should "consider union with the city library and a request for financial aid from Mr. (Andrew) Carnegie."

After gaining city-wide approval, a letter bearing the signatures of University President James B. Angell, dean of the University Law School, Prof. (Harry B.) Hutchins, the mayor of Ann Arbor, the president of the Board of Education, and the president of the Ladies Library Association was sent to Carnegie requesting $20,000. 

A year later a special meeting of the Ladies' Library Board was called to discuss an offer that had come from Carnegie to give $20,000 for a new building on condition that $2000 annually be provided for its support through some municipal agency. 

Because of the condition that $2000 annually be provided by a municipal agency, the ladies decided to unite with the School Board in accepting the offer. 

The rest of 1903 saw few results, but many plans. A building committee was appointed and architects were consulted. but, owing to the opinion of some that a site other than the one that the ladies had in mind was desirable, no definite action was taken in regard to the contract for the building. 

Finally at the end of 1903, the Library Association received a letter from the Board of Education accepting the proposition referring to a public library, except for the part dealing with the site of the building. 

Because no compromise seemed possible, the ladies voted to withdraw. 

In 1904, after the High School building burned down, plans were made independently by the school board for a new high school building. The library, known as the "Public Library," was erected on the high school square as a wing of the new school building. It was paid for from Carnegie grants from Sept. 1, 1905 and Aug. 31, 1907, totaling $30,000. 

However, the part the Ladies' Library Association had played in bringing about the public library was not entirely overlooked. 

In November, 1907, the Board of Education passed a resolution acknowledging that "the members of the Ladies' Library Association initiated the movement which has resulted in a  beautiful and commodious library building," and invited the Ladies Library to join fortunes with the school district. 

On the 50th anniversary of the Association in 1916, the ladies accepted the offer. 

Several thousands of volumes of the Ladies' Library were transferred to the Public Library and the Huron St. property was deeded to the Public Schools of Ann Arbor.

But the work of the Association did not stop at that point.

Since 1931, the endowment created by the Ladies' Library has been devoted to art books, and the extensive collection in the city library is due to their continuing effort. 

Cornerstone Installed

As part of the centennial anniversary program of the Ladies' Library Association, the cornerstone of the old Ladies Library was installed in the Ann Arbor Public Library. Present were Mrs. Harold E. Wethey, president of the association; Homer R. Chance, director of the Ann Arbor Public Libraries; and Mrs. James M. Plumer, past president and now board member of the association. 

Former Ladies' Library

An artist's sketch shows the Ladies' Library that was erected in 1885 by the Ladies' Library Association. The brick structure, designed in Romanesque revival style, housed the book collection of Ann Arbor's subscription library. It stood at 324 E. Huron, the present site of the office of Michigan Bell Telephone Company.