The Backstory: How Ann Arbor's libraries went public

Ann Arbor has the fourth-highest book sales in the country according to, but Ann Arborites can't necessarily buy everything they want to read. While Ann Arbor has increasingly embraced more unconventional items in its libraries, books remain at the heart of those institutions. And libraries themselves have been close to Ann Arborites' hearts since long before the Ann Arbor District Library we know today ever existed.

Just three years after John Allen and Elisha Walker Rumsey founded Ann Arbor in 1824, a group called the Ann Arbor Library Association began meeting. This was not a public library as we know it; the association 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 Ann Arbor's first newspaper, the Western Emigrant. Dues were $2.50 per year and were mainly used to purchase reference books. The following decade produced another Ann Arbor Library Association and a Working Men's Library Association. Like that very first group, these were not funded by taxes but by private dues and donations. But government-sponsored public libraries were soon to come.

One of Ann Arbor's earliest public library endeavors was called the School District Library. 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 their books with local townships. Since these were to be public, non-dues-paying organizations, the state government announced two years later that various fines collected by local government units would go to the libraries. (The only exceptions were cases in which the funds were needed for the local poorhouse.)

The Ann Arbor school district began purchasing books as early as March of 1844, as reported by the Michigan State Journal. Twelve years later in 1856, the district's library books were consolidated into a space in Ann Arbor's first public high school: the Union School on State Street between Washington and Huron (later renamed Ann Arbor High School, then the Frieze Building, now replaced by the North Quad complex). 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. The library was open once a week while school was in session. At that time, around 600 books were available and 250 of them were checked out at any given time. Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and Nathaniel 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, per the state requirement discussed above. But apparently that income wasn't much. 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 library's holdings could be increased and the library could stay open one full afternoon and one full evening at least once per week for the entire year.

The following year, the Michigan Argus printed a report from W.S. Perry, then superintendent of Ann Arbor Public Schools. He described the School District Library as being "well selected (and) well patronized" but too small. Only $59.60 worth of fines had been received the prior year. Perry 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 Ann Arbor District Library's Loving branch (replaced by the Malletts Creek branch in 2004).

An Ann Arbor Courier article from 1886 announced "good reading free!" at the library. The collection had grown to include 2,500 books, among which the Courier asserted there was "almost an entire absence of what is known as 'trash.'" On regular school days, patrons could check out a book from 8:30 a.m. until 1:00 p.m. 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 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Loving reported that there were 10,000 checkouts per year.

By this time, the library was funded by fines, dog taxes, 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 which included a room set aside for the library. In 1904, while the board of education was working to put a Carnegie public 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 library funds and voters later approved a bond for a new school. When the new school and library opened in 1907, they were connected by a passageway and fireproof door.

Of course, the School District Library was only the beginning of a robust public library system in Ann Arbor. While we've focused here on the School District Library and the precursors to Ann Arbor's public libraries, an entire book could probably be written on local library history. From people collecting dues in a newspaper office to funding a school’s library with dog taxes to today's library system with five branches and a circulation of almost 9 million items, Ann Arbor has earned its reputation as a library-loving town.

Patti Smith lives in Ann Arbor, the best city on earth. By day, she is a special education teacher. By night, she writes novels (that she hopes to sell one day) and articles for Mittenbrew, the Ann, Pulp, the Ann Arbor Observer, and Concentrate.
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