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Women's History Month: Establishing Libraries In Ypsilanti And Washtenaw County

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we take a close look the role women played in establishing some of the public libraries in Washtenaw County.  This history is extra special for one district library in particular this year. 

"Good morning, James. How are you?"

A clerk at the front desk greets a patron as he enters the Michigan Avenue branch of the Ypsilanti District Library.  The district is celebrating a milestone this year.

"This is the 150th anniversary of the Ypsilanti District Library and so it was founded in 1868."

Gillian Gainsley is the communications coordinator for the library. 

"At the time, there were 168 borrowers and they had to pay $1 to get a library card. And it was exclusively women, they were founded as the Ladies Library. And they had a budget of $250 in that first year," said Gainsley.

The collection consisted of 175 books and many of them came from the personal collection of the wealthy women who helped establish the library.  One of them was Mrs. Eunice Watling.  She was a socialite who was married to a University of Michigan professor. 

Jerome Drummond is a circulation clerk at the Ypsilanti District Library and has been researching its history for the 150th anniversary. 

"She talked with a male professor over at Michigan Normal School, now Eastern Michigan University, to help her with the organization of it.  She got together with the ladies and they decided they were going to found this.  And, they secured a space in a place called the Arcade Block here in Ypsilanti," said Drummond.

Drummond is referring to the Ladies Library Association of Ypsilanti.  Once that group was created, they opened on North Huron.  In 1886, that building became inadequate for the purpose, and the library moved to the second floor of the Union Block on Michigan Avenue.  But it’s most iconic home was its next.  That’s where I met local resident Donna DeButts. 

We stand outside of the privately owned building as cars drive by on North Huron Street.  She’s proudly wearing a sweatshirt that reads “Libraries.  Check Them Out.”

"I remember going here when I was 10, 11, 12 years old.  And the kids room was this room off to the left," said DeButts.

The two-story, brick Italianate-style home was built in 1858 and owned by Mary Ann Starkweather.  It was a residence until 1890, at which time, the local philanthropist donated the building to be used as a library.  That’s when Ladies Library was engraved over the main entrance.  DeButts smiles from ear-to-ear as she looks at entrance.

"That’s very exciting to me that it’s the Ladies Library, not everybody’s library, but the Ladies Library," added DeButts.

The library officially opened to the general public in 1899.  That’s when the Ypsilanti Common Council started providing financial support for the institution.  In 1904, the Ladies Library annual budget grew from $250 to $1,600, and the library expanded service from one day a week to six.  It remained at the North Huron Street location until 1963 when it moved to the same Michigan Avenue location it stands today.  DeButts smiles again as she continues to reminisce.

"This was a wonderful example of what women did in the 1890's, 1868, 1980’s, all those years to make this community resource available," added DeButts.

But the women in Ypsilanti weren’t the only ones to shape library systems during the 1800’s.  Josie Parker is the Director of the Ann Arbor District Library.

"The library was begun in 1866 as a subscription library and most of that was done by women who organized a small library in a top of a store in Ann Arbor.  So people could subscribe and be able to borrow.  Then the Ladies Library Association was organized, and it began to buy material for the library and support the library.  And it was the Ladies Library Association that helped secure funding from Carnegie that built the first public library in Ann Arbor in its own building.  Prior to that, the library had been in a building that was the old Ann Arbor High School that no longer exists but was on the university’s campus," said Parker. 

Today, the Ann Arbor Library system now stands as the largest in Washtenaw County.  It started with about 100 books and now has 600,000 items and over 75,000 active borrowers.  Again, the Ladies Library in Ypsilanti started off with 175 books.  It now has 350,000 items in its collection and has 45,000 cardholders. 

Back at the Michigan Avenue library branch in Ypsilanti, researcher Jerome Drummond explains why the 1860’s was a popular time for women.

"1867 was when women in Michigan won the right to vote in school board elections.  Kind of the forerunner of their voting.  It’s the year before Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony found the National Women’s Suffrage Association," said Drummond.

Josie Parker from the Ann Arbor District Library says she’s proud of the women who came before her.

"Women lead women and we pay attention and we read the stories and think about how hard that must have been at the time.  What the barriers would have been and the courage that it took to stand up for something that we consider today as normal as a public library where anyone can be, in a time when that was so radical," said Parker.

Increased literacy in Washtenaw County can be directly attributed to the women creating local learning centers called libraries in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor.  It’s just one reason we continue to honor Women’s History Month.

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him

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