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The Ladies' Library Association

Ladies Library Association Sesquicentennial Logo
LLA Sesquicentennial Logo

The Ladies’ Library Association (LLA) was formed in March 1866 when thirty-five Ann Arbor women started a  small subscription library. Its success through the next several decades stimulated cultural engagement in the community and led to the establishment of the city’s first Carnegie library. A staunch supporter of Ann Arbor’s public library through its history, the Association continues its commitment to the current Ann Arbor District Library through special projects, exhibits, and support of the Library's circulating collections.

Founding and Early Years

Reading groups and reading associations were plentiful during Ann Arbor’s first several decades, but libraries were a luxury -- and typically private. Ann Arbor’s Union High School, opened in 1856, included a public library, but usage was restricted to the superintendent's office and rarely frequented by the larger public. The thirty-five socially prominent women who formed the original Association saw the need for a municipal library and they took their role as a civic force for intellectual improvement seriously. [1]

They first met on March 19, 1866, in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church located at the southwest corner of Division and Huron (on the spot of the Ann Arbor News Building, which now houses the University of Michigan Credit Union). They drafted a constitution, elected fifteen officers, and began their subscription library. That library was based on a model first outlined by Benjamin Franklin in 1731 and would be the seventh in the state of Michigan to be organized by a Ladies’ Library Association. 

LLA president, Mary E. Cooley,
LLA President from 1870-1871, Mary E. Cooley

Membership in Ann Arbor’s LLA required $3 to join and $1 in annual dues for the privilege of borrowing books from its collection. [2] Subscribers could also donate books in lieu of the fee. Despite its name, the Association’s constitution expressly stated that gentlemen were permitted to subscribe for the same fee. The constitution further specified that the library would be open one day a week, a librarian would be selected to keep track of the books and member accounts, and a committee of three members would determine book selection. [1] The first books donated to the library were six volumes of David Hume’s The History of England. [4]

By April 1866, the LLA was incorporated and the subscription library was successfully operating out of an upstairs room in the Hangsterfer block, which the Association rented for $50 a year. The LLA received community support and favorable press from the start of their service and by year’s end it had 79 members with 892 books, more than half of which were donated. They also outgrew their quarters and moved to a room above the First National Bank on Main St. [1]

Queen Esther handbill
Handbill for a cantata sponsored by the Ladies' Library Association

In addition to their growing library, LLA members hosted talks, poetry readings, and musical concerts. A meeting might take place at a prominent citizen’s home and frequently consisted of elevated entertainment -- studying the works of classical composers or an art reception, for example. [1] The Association fundraised through guest lectures, public readings, and concerts where the Ann Arbor public could attend for a small fee. They also regularly supplemented funds with fairs and an annual strawberry festival.

Ladies' Library Building, 324 E. Huron St.
Ladies' Library Association building, 324 E. Huron St., built in 1885.

From 1866 to 1885, the LLA rented different locations in town, at one point working out of the top floor of the County Courthouse; and, in 1882, the Hamilton Block on the northeast corner of Fourth and Huron Sts. Finally, in 1885, the Association purchased a lot at 324 E. Huron and hired Chicago architects Allen and Irving Pond to build the city’s first freestanding library. Fundraising efforts by the LLA allowed them to pay off the building by 1891.

Early 20th Century and First Carnegie Library

From its beginning, the LLA entertained hopes of joining forces with the public school district to form a municipal free public library, but the efforts on both sides invariably fell short of their mark. In 1870, the Association petitioned Ann Arbor City Council to take over their subscription library and make it public, but the Council declined. And in 1879, the School Board offered to combine their district library with that of the Association, but the Association declined. [5] 

Anna Botsford Bach
Anna Botsford Bach

In 1902, community activist Anna Botsford Bach - both a member of the School Board and president of the LLA - brought forward the idea that the LLA and school district should work together to apply for a grant to build a city library from steel magnate and philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. The LLA, the Board of Education, and the City Council all supported the application. The LLA received a letter from the Carnegie Foundation in early 1903 to fund the cost of a library for $20,000.

Unfortunately, however, the School Board and the Association could not agree on terms. The LLA had hoped to locate the new building on land they were deeding to the schools; whereas the Board of Education intended to build on existing school property. Negotiations sparked considerable debate between both parties and the townspeople. But when the Board of Education voted 5 to 3 in favor of the school site, the LLA pulled its support for the application and the schools pursued additional Carnegie funding on their own. In the meantime, the Union high school (and its library) burned down on December 31, 1904. The building was destroyed, but students and staff managed to save 8,000 books. And in the aftermath of the fire, voters approved a bond issue for a new high school and the library was built simultaneously as a wing of the high school.

In 1907, in an effort to mend their public quarrel with the LLA, the Board of Education published a resolution inviting the Association to merge efforts. The LLA at first declined, but on their 50th anniversary in 1916 they gave their collection to the library and deeded their Huron Street property to the Ann Arbor School District.

Mid-20th Century Through Today

In 1931, the LLA adopted a new constitution and since that time their endowment has been primarily devoted to purchasing art books for the public library’s collection. In March 1969, they also began a circulating art print collection focusing on modernist artists Paul Cezanne, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Pablo 

Marion Bader and Margaret Cameron with LLA art print collection
LLA members Marion Bader and Margaret Cameron with new circulating art print collection, March 1969.

Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, and Andrew Wyeth -- a unique library collection that’s vastly expanded over time and remains highly popular to this day. In 1976, the Ladies opened a time capsule of Association records sealed 100 years earlier; and in 1983, the IRS approved their tax exemption status.

The Ladies’ Library Association is currently comprised of a twenty-woman board and continues to support the library through the purchase of art books, a collection of circulating fine art prints, and art-themed games for the Youth Department. [2] They are also involved in many other library arts-related projects.

In 1991, during the expansion of the Downtown Library, the LLA gave $20,000 to defray the cost of oversized stacks and a reading area for the fine arts books. The Association has also purchased original work from local artists for the library’s new branches, including pieces by important local artists such as Gerome Kamrowski and David Tammany. More recently, the Ladies Library Association helped bring the acclaimed 1619 Project Exhibit to the community, and a generous gift brought the Lobbytorium Gallery Screen to the Downtown Library in 2021.

Learn More

LLA Records & Minutes

Ladies Library Association Record Book, Vol 1: 1866-1872
Ladies Library Association Record Book, Vol 3: 1879-1890
Ladies Library Association Record Book, Vol 4: 1890-1901
Ladies Library Association Record Book, Vol 5: 1901-1908
Ladies Library Association Record Book, Vol 6: 1908-1953
Ladies Library Association Secretary's Book, Vol 1: 1930-1962
Ladies Library Association Secretary's Book, Vol 2: 1963-1971
Ladies Library Association Secretary's Book, Vol 3: 1972-1982
Ladies Library Association Secretary's Book, Vol 4: 1983-1995
Ladies Library Association Meeting Minutes: 1996-2016
Ladies Library Association Quarterly and Annual Reports, 1889-1903
Ladies Library Association Quarterly and Annual Reports, 1903-1953
Ladies Library Association List of Pledges for Debt Journal: 1888-1915
Ladies Library Association Books Purchased List: 1916-1927
Ladies Library Association Books Purchased List: 1931-1946
Ladies Library Association Books Purchased List: 1947-1952
Ladies Library Association Bank Book: 1891-1895
Ladies Library Association Bank Book: 1895-1909
Ladies Library Association Financial Journal: 1881-1901
Ladies Library Association Investments Journal: 1951-1973
Ladies Library Association Stock Authorization, 1952
Ladies Library Association 2016 Bylaws


Ladies Library Association Tenth Anniversary History, 1876
History of the Ladies Library Association, 1948
Ladies Library Association Member Autobiographies, 1976


Handbill for Performance of Queen Esther, benefitting the LLA, 1866
Flyer for Ladies Library Association Tin Wedding, 1876
Invitation to Lecture on "The Inns of Court" presented at Ladies Library Association Library, 1892
Flyer for The Doctor of Alcantara, benefitting the Ladies Library Association, 1901
Invitation to Sesquicentennial Celebration of Ladies Library Association, 2016


Newspaper Articles


[1]. The History of the Ann Arbor Library, 1827-1991, by Grace Shackman.

[2]. Library Threads, by Grace Shackman. Ann Arbor Observer, October 2016.

[3]. A History of the Ladies' Library Association of Ann Arbor, Michigan, by Frances A. Hannum, 1948.

[4]. "Library Group Observing Centennial," by Al Lubowitz, Ann Arbor News, April 7, 1966.

[5]. "Another of Public Library's Important Dates Falls June 11," by Mary Jo Frank, Ann Arbor News, May 24, 1973.