Mary Spencer: The State Library's Progressive Visionary, 1893-1923

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The Civil war was a generation away and the progressive movement was taking hold in America. Progressive reformers preached that government was not only government by the people, but for the people. This progressive mantra was becoming a political force and part of the national consciousness. This was the mood and spirit of Michigan as Mary C. Spencer assumed the position of State Librarian in 1893.

Born in Pontiac, Michigan, Mary Clare Wilson Spencer was the first State Librarian born outside of New England. After serving as assistant state librarian for eight years and honing her skills in administration, leadership and legislative procedures, Mary Spencer was appointed Michigan's state librarian on March 3, 1893.

By July of 1893 Mary Spencer was ready to implement her own progressive vision, drawing on her years of experience working with staff and the state Legislature. To fully appreciate Mary Spencer's impact on the State Library and the people of Michigan, one must remember that since 1828 the use of the library's books was restricted to state officials. That all changed with the beginning of Spencer's tenure.

Mary Spencer's administration would be characterized by expanding services for all people. The State Library went from a Lansing-based facility for legislators and government employees to a statewide facility for local libraries, citizens and reader groups so typical of the progressive era. Two of her many accomplishments symbolize this combination of vision and pragmatism: the associate library system and traveling libraries.

The associate library System was Mary Spencer's way to use existing libraries to make government work for the people. She felt that opening the State Library collection to all was just the first step, since these books could only be used by traveling to Lansing, which was still a long costly journey by horse and buggy or railroad. To remedy this situation, existing libraries were invited to become affiliated with the State Library. By becoming an associate library, books would be sent to patrons at the expense of the user. By 1895 there were ten associate libraries using books from the state list, by 1898 there were 26 and by 1906 the number increased to 60. The list of associate libraries varied from the Detroit Public Library with over 174,000 volumes to the Grand Haven Public School Library with 687 volumes.

In 1895 the Legislature passed a bill that included funds for traveling libraries. Michigan became the second state after New York to offer this service. In May of 1895 the first traveling library was sent to North Star, Michigan. It consisted of 50 volumes, with the goal of exposing those who live a distance from large towns to the best literature. Mary Spencer also envisioned patron from these remote areas cultivating a desire for good books. To accomplish this task, the reader was given a mixture of fiction and serious literature. They were shipped in oak cases and kept for three to six months. Users were encouraged to use their own judgment in circulation. The results exceeded all expectations!

By 1897, Michigan had 50 traveling libraries. By 1898 the number increased to 125, and in 1901 the Legislature doubled the appropriation for the program. By 1902 there were 722 Traveling Libraries on the road with over 16,000 patrons utilizing over 74,000 books.

Yet as the 1920s approached, the progressive goal of developing the reading habit through the associate libraries and traveling libraries programs actually contributed to their decline. Mary Spencer attributed at least 20 cities building free public libraries as a result of the readers these programs developed. The movement of county libraries and U.S. Parcel Post eventually took its toll. In 1919 the traveling library program was dropped from the budget. However, without a doubt, Mary Spencer's programs not only succeeded but also laid the groundwork for our modern library system.

The Mary Spencer era came to an end after she was appointed to her last four-year term in 1919. In May of 1923, she became very ill and died that August at the age of 81. During Mary Spencer's watch, the State Library had become a nationally recognized professional institution for all the people of Michigan. She built upon the foundations laid by the Harriet Tenney and left as her legacy a State Library with the modern concept of library service. Her vision of a library whose priorities were focused on actively using its resources statewide, rather than just the Lansing facility, was realized in her lifetime. Without Mary Spencer's leadership in developing a total library system for everyone and her enthusiasm for maintaining a quality collection of books, Michigan would not have attained its leadership position among state libraries during the first part of the 20th century.

by Jim Schultz, Department of History, Arts and Libraries

Updated 06/01/2003