150 Years of Libraries

The Challenges

In order to meet the growing demand for books, a branch of the Public Library was established on the east side in 1915. The Eastern Branch started in a remodeled bank building, moved to a small building on Orange Street, and later settled on East Michigan Avenue.

pg_17a CHALLENGES 1 Eastern branch

The Eastern Branch was just a very small wooden building but I thought it was fabulous because you didn’t own too many books – you got them for Christmas and birthdays and things like that – and I just remember friendly librarians and Grandma taking books home too for my mother and for the rest of the family. We were all readers.
— Interview with Connie Hobde: 2014

The decade of the 50s was one of growth in library services. The Jackson County Library Program quickly outgrew its space and moved to a new building on West Avenue in 1954. The “neighborhood branch,” or what’s more commonly known as the Bookmobile, provided easy access to books. The County also had a similar service.

Every other week, a large brown bus pulled into our small parking lot with the promise of a new adventure in books. Entering the bookmobile was like entering a sanctuary. Oh the decisions to be made! I had an overwhelming feeling of panic! I wanted to choose the “right” book within the short time allotted to us! I thought that the librarian had the best job in the world! I assumed she drove the bus home and sat in her driveway, reading books all night long!
— Letter from Mrs. Betsy Orrison: 2014

pg_17b CHALLENGES 11 - bookmobile

Bookmobile, Eastern Branch, Orange Street circa 1955

Lots of times while I was driving, the girl who was working
with me – she sat at a little table, kind of like desktop, right
behind the driver – she’d be getting the records of where we
were going and what books had been loaned out and how
many and getting them filed . . . Women didn’t have to dress
up so they’d dash down the street to the bookmobile to
check out a novel or two.
Interview with Mrs. Bessie England: 2014

Duplication of services and financial stresses led to talks about merging the County and Public Library systems. In 1970, voters rejected the idea. Some feared the city would lose control to the county, but others chafed at the fact that they were taxed by both the city and county to support the libraries. But from the librarians’ perspective the budget situation was dire, Lorraine Butchart, Acquisitions Director, recalls:

If you think back to the tone of the 60s, 70s, any time the municipalities had financial difficulties, the first place they would cut would be the libraries . . . so we were always on the chopping block. Both library systems had very strong directors prior to that time, Clare Sergeant and Eudocia Stratton, and those two people were very adamant about supporting the agencies of the government that they represented but both
faced the same peril of no money. It became apparent that the only way public library service was going to survive in Jackson County was for a merger.
— Interview with Lorraine Butchart: 2014

No Funds

No Funds

Joseph Warren, the City Manager, called me into his office and he said, Jack, ‘you’re gonna have to put a committee together and the only way we’re gonna survive this is if we merge the libraries’. . . . Finally, the vote came, and we were successful. Interview with Jack Daball: 2014

It was no small task, in 1977, to find ways to unite two separate administrative systems, space, finances, collections, and two separate staffs with separate contracts. The process, led by a newly appointed Jackson District Library Board, took almost a year. After an intense search, David Leamon was hired to head
the new Jackson District Library.

And I would say that if you look at the directors who were
involved in the district library after the consolidation –
David Leamon had to create a new image, and he did that
very well in his ten years. Virginia Lowell brought us into the
technology world, Richard Douglass, Bessie Burnett,
Luren Dickinson – they had to go out and they had to
integrate themselves into the community.
Interview with Lorraine Butchart: 2014

In 1993, the library joined the computer age and a partnership with Jackson Community College. Automation replaced the card catalog, collaboration replaced duplication of services, and technology brought the entire system up to date.

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The County Library

A Varied Diet

Photo of Louise Tefft

Louise Tefft, circa 1937

I believe we should provide residents of Jackson County
outside the city of Jackson the same benefit of library facilities
that are enjoyed by residents of the city. Books and papers bring
the world to our door. A healthy mind needs a variety in its
thought just as much as the properly nourished body
demands a varied diet. — Mrs. Louise Tefft: 1928 request to County Supervisor

Mrs. Tefft’s efforts in promoting the county library were recognized several years later when she received a letter from Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt congratulating her and extending best wishes. Mrs. Tefft, who started it all, said, “Books and papers bring the world to our door. A healthy mind needs a variety in its thought just as much as the properly nourished body demands a varied diet.”
Jackson Citizen Patriot: 1961

At the turn of the 20th Century, the state library established “traveling libraries,” which provided rural areas with books; these became so successful that people wanted permanent libraries in their own communities. Several varieties of libraries popped up in the county, from the private library that Miss Nellie Young operated out of her home in Brooklyn to a sprinkling of subscription libraries and free libraries in Springport, Concord, Parma, and Hanover. Thanks to the efforts of Hanover resident Louise Tefft, Jackson was one of two counties in Michigan chosen to start a county library program.

Hard Times

Miss Maud Grill – teacher, newspaper reporter, librarian – was more than qualified for the task. Most importantly, Miss Grill knew how to work with people and persevere in hard times. She was given an automobile and office space in the basement of the Carnegie building. One of her first tasks was to learn how to drive. Miss Grill traveled the county, establishing book stations and community libraries. She delivered books to schools, swapping out books at each station on a regular basis. Her personal diaries show how readily she racked up 3,000 miles a year. She recounted her efforts to get books out to county residents in her radio talk of 1929.

Photo of Maud Grill

Maud Grill, circa 1937

The first months have been very busy ones. Starting with absolutely no books at all, about 1800 books have been bought, 1000 books have been lent by the Michigan State Library. These 2800 books are now distributed to 19 stations in small town libraries, post offices, and oil stations where shoeboxes and canned good have been shifted to make shelf room. At one station, the task of placing books on shelves just vacated by tomato cans was suspended to charge the books out to interested patrons. At another, the children have greedily taken out easies and books like Peter Rabbit went out and came back three times a day. The country stations are reached by a very efficient Ford Coupe truck. So we do feel that it is true that “Michigan moves ahead.”
Miss Maud Grill: Radio Talk 1929

Worth Their Salt


Budgetary issues were always a worry. In 1933, just four years after the County Library opened; county-wide budget cuts were proposed. Once again it was Mrs. Louise Tefft of Hanover who approached the County Supervisors once again.

Dear Sir: Suppose a family’s budget for food looked like this: Meat per month $12; Milk per month, $5, Groceries per month $35; Salt per month .10. What would you think of the brains of the head of the house, if he said “Strict economy being necessary, let us cut down on SALT?” But to cut down on the relatively tiny amounts a community spends on its public library service is to cut down on the intellectual salt which gives savor to most of life; which brings out the flavor and the meaning of many of life’s happenings; which, in times of mental hardship and privation, can do more than any other one factor to make life palatable. Don’t cut the salt out of your budget.
Mrs. Louise Tefft: Oct. 2, 1933


The book budget at both public and county libraries suffered during this time, and often only one or two copies of popular books were in circulation. Protecting and reissuing books became a priority, so both systems employed Works Project Administration (or WPA) workers to rebind books. These workers collectively bound thousands of books and also served as librarians, researchers, and book truck drivers. While the WPA workers made wages just above the poverty level, city librarians made even less.

Miss Grill used this adversity to demonstrate the absolute necessity of the County Program. During the peak years of the Depression, the county circulated 12,000 books in one year. She claimed the increase was due to unemployed patrons reading escape literature. And in spite of the hard economic times, the county library expanded.
When she retired in 1952, it would take another talented strong woman, Miss Eudocia Stratton, to carry on. Despite her formal demeanor, Miss Stratton cared about her staff and encouraged them.

Photo of WPA County Library

WPA County Library circa 1935

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The Hub

The new Public Library quickly became a Hub providing services and meeting facilities for a variety of patrons: book clubs, garden groups, genealogical societies, and the Boy and Girl Scouts, to name a few. Men checked out books to study farming methods, learn repair techniques, and find out about the latest in technology. One of the most popular books was a manual explaining how to repair the Model T. In 1909, the Jackson Art Association organized and held lectures and mounted exhibits of artwork loaned by residents as well as from museums and galleries in Detroit, Chicago, New York, and the like.

Stereographic travels and phonographic concerts

Art Gallery 2nd Floor Carnegie Building circa 1906

Art Gallery 2nd Floor Carnegie Building circa 1906

“The Jackson Public Library is an unusual social and civic center, declares Mr. J. Jones, a newcomer here.” He particularly mentions the splendid collection of stereographic travel tours for home use, the privilege of using the library on Sunday, and the “newly-instituted phonograph concerts.” — Jackson Citizen Patriot: April 4, 1917

The Wartime Hub

In wartime the library served the community as an information hub. Posted maps showed battlefronts. Books and pamphlets helped women Hooverize intelligently so that meatless Tues and wheat-less Wed shall be days of joy and not of gloom. The juvenile section was enriched with Uncle Sam’s Boy at War and The Adventures of Arnold Adair American Ace.
During the WWI, head librarian John Clevenger led the Victory Book Drive, which sent books to camps in the U.S. and “over there.”

Jackson Head Librarian John Clevenger organized the library at nearby Camp Custer.

Jackson Head Librarian John Clevenger organized the library at nearby Camp Custer.

During WWII and the Korean Conflict the Jackson County Dad’s Service Club purchased up-to-date technology books honoring the young men and women who had served. The Public Library dedicated a room in the Carnegie Building to house these books. Jackson Junior College had a similar program for their students who served.

The Jackson Public Library was also a hub for young people. Children attended musical programs, storytelling, and library week events in the second floor children’s room. Did you know that we had stereoscopes in the children’s room? It was a viewing thing with two eyepieces and you put a card in out in front of that which had a picture on it only it had two pictures, one for your left eye and one for your right eye, and so when you looked through the lenses at it, it made it look three-dimensional. — Interview with Natalie Field: 2014

Children's group

Children’s group

Old Flappers and New Philosophers

Older Students from nearby schools came to do homework and socialize. Jackson Junior College student Len Crandall was an avid reader who often went to the public library. He wrote in his 1932 diary about books and his girlfriend Mary:

The note she wrote me in the library today seems to indicate that she really does like me. I wonder? Shall I ask her to go steady with me? I don’t know. . . Worked all day, played “hearts” at Ben’s until 11:30 and then came home and read Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers. I wish I could write like that. — Jackson Junior College student Len Crandall: 1932

Jackson Junior College students in front of Marsh Hall circa 1930

Jackson Junior College students in front of Marsh Hall circa 1930

The City Library was doing a yeoman’s job of providing services for city residents. But county residents were underserved. They were hesitant to come to the big city and could not check out books at the library. What did people in rural Jackson County do to satisfy their “book hunger?”

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The Munificent Gift

Andrew Carnegie circa 1880

Andrew Carnegie circa 1880

Industrialist Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Library Fund to create libraries around the country. In 1900, a library committee in Jackson applied. Funding was calculated on a strict formula based on population. The city agreed to purchase the necessary land and provide annual operating funds. Carnegie generously awarded Jackson $50,000, but “JACKSON WANTED A LIBRARY LIKE NONE OTHER.”

Plans went over budget by $20,000.


Old Friends

Mrs. R. H. ( Zelie) Emerson, a member of the Jackson Library Committee, wrote Carnegie, via his secretary, asking for the additional funds to “build the building Jackson deserves.”

Mr. Bertram, The current Library is located on the second floor of a good block on a business street, about in the center of the town. There is no elevator. Its quarters are pleasant, but as it occupies the whole floor; there is no chance of expansion. The book space is cramped, and the reading-room entirely too small for the growing attendance of the public-especially the children who are there in great numbers. The reason my previous letter was not typewritten is that it is in a way a personal letter to Mr. Carnegie. We were old friends in Pittsburgh years ago. Will you kindly see that it meets his eye? — Zelie Passavant Emerson: 1900

Zelie Emerson circa 1880

Zelie Emerson circa 1880

They were indeed old friends. As a young girl, Zelie Passavant and Andrew Carnegie had even spoken of marriage. Her father, William Passavant, a well-known Lutheran minister, objected on religious grounds. Zelie took the train to Pittsburgh to make her case, and in honor of their past friendship, Carnegie granted Jackson an additional $20,000.


My Dear Mr. Carnegie: Two years ago you gave us $70,000 for a Public Library. The City bought a magnificent site on Main Street. The bids overrun the sum given us at least $25,000 owing to the great advance in the cost of materials and labor. Nothing could be done to lessen the cost without cheapening the construction and so spoiling the building. You would not wish us to change it in any single particular. We would deeply appreciate your favorable consideration of this matter. Yours ever sincerely, Zelie Passavant Emerson: Feb. 14, 1903

Mr. Carnegie said “no.”

My dear Mr. Carnegie, believe me that the people of Jackson deeply appreciate your generous gift. The library building in its simple and serene beauty has set a new and high Ideal for public buildings in our town, and its perfect adaptation to all library needs will provide for the city a library home for ½ Century to come. — Zelie Passavant Emerson

The Building is a Peach

The building was due to finish in 1904, but labor unrest and construction problems increased the costs and delayed the opening for two years. The Carnegie building finally opened on August 21, 1906, to great fanfare.

There will be no more jibes and jeers as to when the new library will open its doors. They actually opened Monday morning. It’s safe to say Librarian Waldo was the happiest woman in Jackson. But the building is a peach–and its magnificence and convenience goes far to compensate for the long delay. Hundreds of our townspeople visited the library Monday and Tuesday to inspect its beauty and several ladies left flowers. — Saturday Evening Star: August 1906

Carnegie Building circa 1906

Carnegie Building circa 1906

My grandmother regularly attended the library to upgrade her skills and keep current with what was going on. I remember her taking us there and she told us the whole story of how Mr. Carnegie gave us the money to build the library and it was a place of learning and a place to be revered and held high in esteem in the community. — Interview with Dr. Edward Mathein:2014

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The Free Public Library

While the YMA was open only to members, public-spirited men such as W.H. Withington, George Dodge, and Michael Shoemaker were instrumental in the opening of a free public library in Jackson.

As YMA president, George Dodge declared:

Let this free library be once established, and every citizen will
look upon it with pride, would willingly be taxed for its support,
and the time will not be far distant when as a city we may justly
be proud of a library which is positively free to both the rich and
the poor alike. Its influence for good could not be estimated; its
power as an educator of the people would be unmeasurable. — George Dodge: YMA Minutes 1882

The free public library moved to the Bloomfield block on Mechanic and West Washington in 1895.

The free public library moved to the Bloomfield block on Mechanic and West Washington in 1895.

The Free Public Library

Many groups took advantage of the programs and literature offered at the public library. Jackson had a large German population, and the library served it by regularly acquiring German books. Lists of new books were published in the local newspapers, including the German paper, the Volkefreund.

While men used the library reading room to read their newspapers and periodicals, the most active users of the public library were women. Many belonged to women’s clubs, literary clubs and book clubs. They not only eagerly borrowed books but also frequently used the library to conduct research for programs they presented at their club meetings.

Jackson's Tuesday Club circa 1885

Jackson’s Tuesday Club circa 1885

These women’s clubs, of no mean size, come here to find help in
their work, often taxing the Library’s usefulness and capacity
to its utmost extent. — Celia Waldo, Head Librarian: 1889 Annual Report

Children were frequent users of the library. Staff designed programs such as Storyhour and magic lantern shows to encourage reading and to familiarize children to the library.

Children flock here by the hundreds every day. Out of a circulation
of a hundred thousand books every year, a generous third of them
are charged to these little men and women. The boys and girls of
today are the legislators of tomorrow. — Celia Waldo, Head Librarian: 1889 Annual Report

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The Collective Good

 Jackson, Michigan circa 1865

Jackson, Michigan circa 1865

In 1854, young businessmen in the Jackson community formed a mutual improvement society. Jackson’s Young Men’s Association (YMA) aimed to address issues of moral and political philosophy.

In its early years, the YMA sponsored debates, provided free public lectures, and attempted to establish a reading room. Strong political feelings of the day prevented the organization from developing further. The political turmoil of the 1850s increased, and fiery debates followed. The desire for libraries, reading rooms, and books was supplanted by talk of slavery, succession, and war.

War did come, and the local militia group, the Jackson Greys, led by William H. Withington answered the call. Talk of libraries would have to wait. The public focused on blow by blow battle descriptions and the fire-eater language of local newspaper editors. Having survived both prison camp and the First Battle of Bull Run, Captain Withington came home a hero. In 1863, he helped revive and formally organize the Young Men’s Association.


The Object of Mutual Improvement — Essentially, a Gentleman’s Club

By early 1864, the YMA had 50 members. Yearly dues were set at $2.00.

The object of this Society shall be the promotion of literary and scientific purposes by means of a library, Reading Room, literary exercise and lectures and such other means as are usually adopted for such purposes. — W. H. Withington: YMA Minutes 1863

In preparation for the opening of their Reading Room, the second floor of the Durand Building on Michigan Avenue was rented at a cost of $65 a year. An additional $45 was spent for tables, a dozen chairs, and a stage. On March 15, 1864 the YMA Reading Room was officially opened. It was essentially a gentlemen’s club. Week nights the janitor lit the gaslights and members came to relax, play a friendly game of chess, read periodicals from as far away as England, and smoke their cigars.

William H. Withington Portrait

William H. Withington

In consequence of the increase in number of those who frequent
the reading room, and the growing taste for reading, the Board
of Directors determined to commence the founding of a library connected with the Association, Young men and boys are asking
for books they cannot afford to buy and few of them have access
to good private libraries. We hope to secure by donations from
citizens from 500 to 1000 Volumes.
— American Citizen: November 7, 1865

Jackson citizens did answer the call with 239 donated books. Books continued to be added to the collection. The library, which officially opened in 1865, was not a true public library because only YMA members had access to the books. Members were expected to read and distribute knowledge to the “young men and boys” in the community. And while women were urged to collect books for the library, they could not join the YMA.


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