Skip to main content

Library of Michigan: Statehood to the Civil War

The State Library was born during Michigan's territorial era and started coming of age during the first two decades of statehood. Except for a few scattered cities, Michigan was still a rugged frontier connected by wagon trails, plank roads and stagecoach routes. Railroads and telegraph lines that would span the width of the state were still dreams of eager frontier businessmen and politicians.

Michigan became a state on Jan. 26, 1837, and pioneers were bursting with ideas for expansion, including a plan to unite Detroit with Chicago by canals and railroads. The southern half of the LowerPeninsula grew rapidly as the rich farmland was bought and sold for profits several times over. Immigration had brought a huge influx of settlers from New England. Education had also become a priority, with many state and private colleges that are still prominent today being founded during this period. The constitution of the new state of Michigan was ahead of its time in the establishment of educational institutions and libraries - Article X called for township libraries to be funded by penal fines and fees paid for exemption from military duty. It was in this enthusiastic frontier environment that the State Library was established.

In 1837, the Legislature appropriated $2,000 for the State Library. The state librarian position was transferred between the governor's office and the secretary of state until the 1850s. Oren Marsh, appointed in December 1837, is considered to be the first state librarian. Unlike many librarians during the territorial era, he was a full-time employee with the official title of librarian.

As state librarian, Marsh was given a budget and was part of an organized attempt to standardize many of the library's practices. From 1837 until 1839, approximately $2,000 was appropriated for the State Library for books and equipment. Since use of the State Library was still restricted to members of the Legislature and state officeholders, the majority of the books dealt with the specific needs of government. Yet the fact that Marsh was also able to order a variety of other books during this period suggests a state that was intent on expanding its horizons and had confidence in the future. By 1838, there were over 294 titles listed in the collection, with subject matter reflecting the political and technological issues of the day - books on popular topics such as slavery and railroads and titles on practical carpentry geared toward the day-to-day needs of the pioneer constituency. Titles such as Nick of the Woods, Women of England and the National Portrait Gallery, along with books by Milton and Scott, reflected a literary interest among these early Michigan settlers.

As the library's collection increased, Marsh, like state librarians before and after him, was required to submit annual reports, catalog the collection, ensure that books were returned on time and attempt to control the loss of borrowed books. For example, he had to levy a fine of six cents for each day over 10 days a book was kept by a legislator or state officer. The fact that a lock was installed on the door of the library room indicates that a problem of borrowing books without permission existed.

However, the state librarian's duties were about to change due to financial factors. The Panic of 1837, which plunged the nation into economic depression, hit Michigan with full force in 1839. The railroad lines that were to bring travelers and goods from Detroit to Chicago came to a halt, and construction of the two canals that were to bring fortune to Michigan stopped, never to start again.

As the financial woes of Michigan's transportation and banking establishments spread throughout other areas of business and government, the governor approved a repeal of the 1837 Library Act. No library purchases were recorded in 1840, and there is not even a record of the annual catalog. The state of the frontier economy worsened, and the low point for the State Library came in 1843-44, when there was no record of a librarian or appropriations. The total expenditure for the State Library in 1843 was only $17. The remainder of the decade did not show much improvement: even though there was more interest in the library, there were no extra funds or record of a librarian.

Yet the 1840s were not all depression and panic. The frontier spirit still shone through all of Michigan's economic problems. For example, there was the communication between Alexander Vattemare, a traveling ventriloquist who had a grand plan to exchange books on an international level, and the state of Michigan. Beginning in 1844 and continuing through 1849, this correspondence resulted in Michigan receiving over 115 volumes written in French from Vattemare. The ambitious plan was never able to sustain itself financially but reflects the vibrant spirit that filled the frontier with grand ideas of expansion, even during a recession.

In 1847, the state capital moved from Detroit to a city recently carved out of the wilderness, called Lansing. As Michigan approached the 1850s, better times were ahead for the state and for the State Library in particular. In 1850, voters approved a new constitutional convention, resulting in a new constitution that took away much of the centralized power the governor had in the 1835 constitution and gave towns and counties more representation. Under the new state constitution plan, the State Library became more formalized and the era of full-time state librarians began.

From the inception of the State Library in 1828, there was a recurring problem of missing books. As the economy improved, the Legislature felt the only way to stop this trend was to employ a full-time librarian. A bill was approved to appoint a librarian for a two-year term, with an annual salary of $500 and duties including a yearly report on the condition of the library and the publication of an annual catalog. This led to a succession of short-term state librarians. Although they were supposedly appointed for two-year terms, six librarians served between April 1850 and April 1859, and only three served full two-year terms. Political patronage may have been a factor in some of the appointments. Little is actually known about each of the librarians during this decade, as most of the annual reports have not survived.

Yet no matter what the circumstances, the fact that there were full-time librarians obviously made a difference. The library grew steadily throughout the decade. In January 1851, there were 5,155 volumes in the collection, and by January 1859, there were over 8,900 volumes. As the decade was coming to an end, records show that the library was fundamentally sound enough that the committee could concern itself with the need to have loose documents bound. However, the period of two-year librarians and stable times was coming to an end, as the Civil War loomed in the near future.

>by Jim Schultz, Department of History, Arts and Libraries

Updated 02/01/2003