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Changing the Face of the State Library and Libraries Statewide: Loleta Dawson Fyan, 1941-1961

Loleta Dawson Fyan is likely Michigan's most famous state librarian and carries the distinction of being the first professionally trained librarian appointed to the position. Before becoming State Librarian, she worked for Detroit Public Library, Wayne County Library - one of the first, and eventually the largest, county library systems in Michigan - and briefly at the Michigan State Library. During her career in Wayne County, she served as president of the Michigan Library Association from 1934 to 1935, where she worked to develop a new legislative program and contributed to the passage of the two important pieces of library legislation that would eventually bring her to the State Library. One of these laws, P.A. 106 of 1937, prompted the State Library to form the Extension, State Aid and Traveling Libraries Division and to borrow Fyan from Wayne County Library to lead it. Although a subsequent lack of funding caused this division to be temporarily suspended after its first year, Fyan's experience there and her well-known abilities and reputation ensured that she would return in 1941, although in a different capacity, as state librarian.

During the United States' involvement in World War II in the early 1940's, Fyan lent her time and the State Library's resources to several state-level committees and programs to aid the war effort. Anticipating the end of the war, Fyan and the State Board for Libraries began drafting a proposal that outlined three post-war projects that would increase and improve library service to the citizens of the state. Two parts of this proposal suggested new and/or expanded space for both the State Library and the Law Library. The third was a plan to expand regional library service to the isolated areas of the state that currently had none, largely the northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula. While the first two parts of the proposal did not bear fruit, appropriations passed by the legislature in the special session of 1944 awarded the library funds to open extension offices in Marquette and Cadillac. Under Fyan's direction, the Extension Division of the State Library worked with local governments to establish library service to rural and isolated communities where an estimated one million state residents had no service.

Although the state aid to libraries program resumed distributing state matching grants to libraries in 1941, library funding in general remained low. Fyan worked closely with the Michigan Library Association in proposing library-related legislation in hopes of reversing this trend. A tireless advocate and lobbyist, Fyan wrote several articles in Michigan Library News outlining the proposed legislation, and she encouraged librarians all over the state to contact their legislators in an attempt to better educate them as to the economic plight of the state's libraries.

The most devastating event to occur during Fyan's tenure was a fire in the State Office (Cass) Building in February 1951, which forced the evacuation of the staff and left thousands of books and materials ravaged by flame, smoke and water. While her staff worked in shifts 24 hours a day to dry and repair the damaged materials, Fyan worked with the other members of the State Board for Libraries to plan both salvage activities and the resumption of services. An unexpected and unwelcome surprise was the lack of comprehension on the part of legislators and other key members of government as to the amount of space, time and staffing needed to house, maintain and operate the State Library. Fyan had to make continuous efforts to demonstrate the library's real needs in the face of many inadequate proposals. Despite the difficulties, the library's collections and services were more or less back to normal by September 1951.

Fyan was also busy with other issues and events besides the fire during this time. The American Library Association elected her as president for the 1951/52 term, an honor to both her and the library community in Michigan. During and after 1951, she would continue to be visible in national library circles, including consulting with the U.S. Department of Education on federal library aid issues.

Fyan embarked on another aggressive plan to encourage the development of library service to underserved rural areas during the 1950s. Under the Regional Library Law, established in 1931, the State Library had the authority to create libraries that served multiple counties. To generate the local support and funding required to form these regional libraries, the State Library set up demonstration projects, or temporary full-scale library services, to illustrate the benefits of such services to the local communities. This tactic was not only popular with underserved communities, it was successful, and by 1955 Fyan could proudly acknowledge her role in the formation of the State Library's Upper Peninsula branch as well as Michigan's first regional library serving Iosco and Arenac counties. Perhaps most telling are statistics that show that in 1937, 27 percent of Michigan's population had no library service at all, but by 1955, that number had dropped to 13 percent, attesting to the success of Fyan's leadership in establishing library service to Michigan's citizens.

In an unexpected move in early 1961, the State Board for Libraries requested Loleta Fyan's resignation from her position as state librarian, citing her age as the reason for the request. Although many librarians and library trustees reacted strongly to the decision to move Fyan out of her position, no further information came to light concerning additional reasons that the State Board requested her retirement. Opposition to this move was so keen that the Michigan Library Association went as far as requesting that the State Board involve MLA in all such future decisions due to the state librarian's integral position and influence within Michigan's library community. As a result, an advisory committee was created to screen future candidates and pass on its recommendations to the State Board for the final decision.

Fyan did not let her resignation keep her out of the field of librarianship, however. Just months after leaving the State Library she traveled south to consult with the North Carolina State Library and to perform a study to determine the feasibility of establishing regional services in parts of that state. Later in life, she was thrilled to witness the building of the new Michigan Library and Historical Center, the culmination of many state librarians' dreams.

Fyan's contribution to the Michigan State Library, library service and library development in the State of Michigan cannot be understated. During her 20-year tenure, the number of State Library staff increased from 33 to 100 members, and the budget increased to twelve times its 1941 level. Most importantly, the number of Michigan citizens without library service was halved by her efforts to build strong cooperative and regional library systems through the state. During her 41-year career, Fyan also held office in several state and national library associations, including president of American Library Association, Michigan Library Association and the American Association of State Libraries. Her contributions are commemorated in an annual service award given by the Michigan Library Association and in a Library of Michigan-hosted biennial conference dedicated to assisting rural libraries, which both bear her name.

Loleta Fyan was well liked, respected by her peers and noted for her cooperative spirit. Her reputation and leadership brought national acclaim to the Michigan State Library and carried it through some of its darkest days without compromising its service or integrity.

by Bernadette Bartlett, Documents Outreach Coordinator, Library of Michigan, Department of History, Arts and Libraries

Updated 10/17/2003