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Library of Michigan, 1869 - 1893: Approaching the Twentieth Century

It could be argued that the first in any category is usually the most significant - somebody had to break the ground that is often taken for granted by later generations. Often this person becomes a role model for those who follow, for better or for worse. Harriet Tenney, when she accepted an appointment as Michigan's state librarian in 1869, became the first woman to hold this position and started a tradition of female leadership of the State Library that went on for 100 consecutive years and continues to this day.


From 1859 to 1869, Harriet Tenney's husband Eugene served as state librarian. Harriet took advantage of the many opportunities to aid her husband in administering the State Library. When Eugene resigned to pursue other interests and recommended his wife for the position, Governor H.P. Baldwin and the Legislature appointed Harriet Tenney as state librarian.

Combining the knowledge she gained from her husband's decade as state librarian with her own vision, Harriet Tenney had an immediate effect on the State Library. During her first twoyear term, the collection grew by 5,000 volumes to 30,097, and popular authors such as Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe were added to the collection.

That Tenney realized the significance of her position is reflected in use of italics and capital letters in the opening paragraph of her first annual report: "By the advice of the Chief Executive of the State and with the unanimous consent and approbation of the Senate, on the 31st day of March 1869, this Library was placed in charge of a WOMAN."

Harriet Tenney's first major tests involved moving the State Library and its collection to two new locations within the first nine years of her tenure. In 1871 the library was moved from the old State Capitol to the new State Office Building. During this time, Harriet worked tirelessly, even denying herself any vacation during the year of the move.

In 1874, Harriet Tenney went before the Legislature with a comparison of states' library budgets as a way of showing that other states spent far more than Michigan on their libraries. The governor recommended and the Legislature approved a $5,000 appropriation bill. To keep up with the times, gas lights were even ordered for the State Library.

In 1875 appropriations for the library dipped down to $500 as all budget and legislative focus was on the construction of the new State Capitol. Although appropriations were reduced, the Legislature's high esteem for Harriet Tenney was apparent, as her salary was increased to $1,000, making her pay equal to the governors'!

During her tenure, Tenney worked to extend the state librarian's role beyond a mere keeper of books. The first state librarian to be a member of the American Library Association, she attended the ALA annual conference in Philadelphia, coming back to Michigan with many new concepts. As library visitation increased, she formulated plans to accommodate patrons' needs, increased correspondence and began cataloging books with cards, which necessitated major clerical help. Again, Tenney was able to win over the Legislature - an assistant State Librarian was appointed and plans for a card catalog system implemented.

In 1878 Harriet Tenney supervised the move to the present State Capitol. A year later, appropriations jumped back to $3,000, and State Library hours were increased. As the library grew with the new Capitol, Harriet Tenney was able to convince the Legislature to increase the staff and the budget.

Mrs. Tenney was appointed state librarian for 11 consecutive terms by seven governors, serving 22 years before leaving the position in 1891. Her last report lists a collection of over 56,000 books. Assistant State Librarian Mary Spencer wrote of her role model Mrs. Tenney that "the library was her life and her joy; she loved the books as the mother does her child, and watched them closely."

Margaret Custer Calhoun, widow of Lieutenant Calhoun and sister of the late General Custer, succeeded Harriet Tenney as state librarian, serving in the position for only two years. Although Calhoun never had the influence of a Harriet Tenney, she actually had several significant accomplishments. She persuaded the Legislature to increase the appropriation Harriet Tenney had recommended by $1,000 and to remove all restrictions on employing clerical help, as she maintained that the State Library's patrons deserved skilled labor.

Calhoun also had the good judgment to retain Mary Spencer as assistant state librarian. Spencer, who administered the cataloging during Calhoun's term and was appointed state librarian when Calhoun stepped down, went on to become one of the most influential state librarians in Michigan history.

Both Harriet Tenney and Margaret Calhoun earned the respect of the male governors and legislators with whom they worked, laying the groundwork for an unbroken succession of female state librarians from 1869 to 1968.

by Jim Schultz, Department of History, Arts and Libraries

Updated 04/01/2003