The State Library Soars Through the '20's to Land Abruptly in the 30's

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When most of us think of the years between 1920 and 1940, we think of flappers, speakeasies and perhaps the rise of Hitler in Germany. Fast and dangerous times!

The State Library in Michigan may not have been as flamboyant as a flapper, but it was just as energetic. The '20s were a time of unprecedented growth in materials and services, slowed only by the stock market crash in 1929 and the Great Depression. Between 1920 and 1930, circulation jumped from 45,908 to 290,185.

Who was checking out all of this material? Everyone.

The State Library expanded library service to remote areas with a missionary zeal.

Before there were branch libraries or bookmobiles there were "traveling libraries." New York and Michigan were the first two states to establish traveling libraries. Collections of 10 to 50 books each started traveling in the late 1890's under State Librarian Mary Spencer but expanded dramatically in the '20's under Mary Frankhauser's care. The materials were sent via U.S. mail to schools, women's clubs, farmer's groups, summer camps, granges, mental institutions and study groups in the far reaches of the state. They filled the void in Michigan's many rural areas that had little or no access to reading material. In 1922/23, of 1,100 cities, only 200 had public libraries. As late as 1930, there were 5,000 rural schools with few or no books. During the Depression, Civilian Conservation Corps camps were added as users.

The State Library was a source of education and culture. It distributed music used by choirs, at the request of the State Federation of Music clubs. Large numbers of schools took advantage of the traveling library service. They used the books, art prints, framed pictures, subject clipping files and sheet music for study, leisure and even to prepare for state debate competitions. In 1924, there were 878 traveling libraries, distributing 43,938 books. During 1927/28, 18,000 pictures were circulated. When a fire destroyed the Normal School library in Mt. Pleasant in 1925/26, traveling libraries helped fill the gap until the school could rebuild its collection. Beaver Island's first traveling collection was housed in the local drugstore during the 1930/31 school year. The winters of 1932 and 1933 brought collections of 70 books to five Isle Royale workers and their six children.

In 1924, library development got an injection of energy with Mary Frankhauser's creation of the Extension Division within the State Library. This division mobilized to stimulate the organization of county libraries in rural areas. It offered advice on beginning new libraries or organizing existing libraries. Menominee, Manistee, St. Clair and Wayne had led the way. Barry County joined the ranks in 1928. Jackson County began providing service by early 1930. Later, WPA funds helped other counties get started. Jackson Prison library was reorganized, updated and held up as an example of what prison libraries could be in 1928.

By 1925, in cooperation with the Department of Public Instruction, the extension service was helping high schools get accreditation by assisting in the cataloging and organizing of their libraries. University of Michigan, the accrediting body of the day, set the standards. In 1926, the division held its first summer library training conference "designed to meet the special needs of the librarian of the small town, who is always more or less isolated..." Held at the Michigan State College in East Lansing, it was a great success and became an annual event until 1931.

The State Library sought ways to raise public awareness of its services through model libraries taken around the state beginning in 1924. Many schools adopted the suggestions made in the models. In 1926, the exhibits appeared at the State Fair; they debuted at the U.P. State Fair in Escanaba in 1928. Around the same time the State Librarian began petitioning for funds for a full-time field worker for the U.P.

The Regional Library Law was enacted in 1931, allowing rural counties to align to improve service through a single system. Michigan was the first state to pass an act allowing for this kind of library development.

The crash of the stock market in 1929 had a chilling affect on funding as demand for service heated up. In 1932/34, the Library faced a 44 percent budget cut. High unemployment and scarcity of money for adult schooling increased pressures for service. The State Librarian reported "the reading room was crowded from the opening of the doors at eight o'clock in the morning until they closed at nine at night with hundreds who found shelter and pastime in the library." The usage inspired the restoration of $1,000 to the budget for FY1933/34; an additional $10,000 was authorized for 1934/35. The budget was 30.4 percent lower than average, while the circulation was 21.9 percent above average. The governor unsuccessfully proposed abolishing the State Library in 1935. Collection and staff remained intact; the physical space allotted the Library was reduced.

WPA funds were used to provide jobs through book preservation projects in Pontiac, Saginaw and Royal Oak in the mid 30's.

By the end of the 1930's, political expediency often trumped library interests. Political patronage re-entered the State Library after 40 years. The newly elected governor unexpectedly, and without cause, asked for Mary Frankhauser's resignation in 1933. Between April 1933 and the end of the decade, there were three new state librarians.

County law libraries got a funding boost in 1935, when a public act amendment diverted a portion of penal fine dollars away from public and school libraries. Protests ensued.

Legislation intended to help libraries came late in the decade and brought more unrest with it. The 1937 State Aid Act required that the governor appoint a library board. It designated funds, for public libraries only, to be administered by the State Library. No funds were appropriated by the Legislature in the first year. Delays stirred controversy. Why were some applications rejected? Why were other funds delivered?

In 1938 the Extension Division and the Traveling Library Department combined to administer the new state aid funds as the Extension, State Aid and Traveling Libraries Division, under the direction of Loleta Fyan.

A 1939 bill threatened to undermine the fundamentals of the 1937 act that created the board, eliminating all professional qualifications for the state librarian, making it even more political. Board members would be more susceptible to dismissal and replacement. Fortunately, it did not pass.

The stable leadership that nurtured growth in the 1920's was in high contrast to the power shifts that colored development and closed out the 1930's. Government maneuvering spurred the Michigan Library Association into sustained activism, and the turbulence of the 1930's became a prelude to changes that would bring success to Michigan's library community again in the next decade.

by Janice Murphy, Librarian, Library of Michigan

Updated 08/01/2003