The Ladies' Library Association in Kalamazoo has recently broken ground on a $2.1 million project to make its historic 130-year-old building more accessible and useful for the community. The building in downtown Kalamazoo, finished in 1879 is on the National Register of Historic Places.
This structure is historic because it was the first in the nation owned exclusively by women. And, it took an act of legislation in the state of Michigan to make that possible. It all began when Lucinda Hinsdale Stone came to town in 1843. Paula Jamison is first Vice President of the still vital philanthropic organization.
“She (Hinsdale) herself wanted to go to college and was ridiculed for wanting to do that," says Jamison. "She was very interested in getting groups of women together to begin reading. The group here in Kalamazoo, which began with three women, who got together to read to one another for quote, their mutual benefit—it attracted more and more women.
"The Kalamazoo organization in a way was the grandmother of the Ladies’ Library Movement. There’s a story of her going to a rural area outside of Kalamazoo recruiting women to join a sewing circle because the women wouldn’t be interested in getting together to read and their husbands probably wouldn’t have been very supportive. So the women got together to sew and Lucinda would bring in articles from newspapers or books, things about current events. They sewed while they were there but they coming because they were looking forward to hearing what was being read.”
In a town without a library, the association wanted to share books with others, so they started a subscription library.
“To join, you contributed a book or a dollar towards a book and that gave you borrowing privileges,” says Jamison.
“Throughout those years, they really, really wanted to have a home of their own,” Ladies' Library Association member June Cottrell says.
First they had to get legislation passed allowing women to borrow money and own property.
“Once that was accomplished, they were very anxious to get going with the building; but then, along came the Civil War and that put it on hold,” says Cottrell.
After the Civil War, Jamison says the ladies continued to lend out books. They met in churches, stores, the courthouse, and even in Fireman's Hall.
“They did charge fines for overdue books. One of the early treasurers, she was a big proponent for building a building ‘of our own’ as they said. She would pool the money from the fines and she would lend it out to businessmen in town and charge interest. By the time they were feeling they were ready to go forward with the building, which would be about 1875, they had amassed about $3,000, which, of course, at that point was a lot of money. The actual cost of the structure was $8,000, so they had a shortfall and they continued to have to borrow and raise funds. But they did it! And this building was opened in 1879. In the room we’re in, shelves contain books that were published mostly in the nineteenth century with these beautiful bindings, not just literature, books on science and a disproportionate amount, considering the size of the collection, of books on and about women. One of our members is a researcher, archivist and she can trace over a hundred clubs in the Midwest and in the East that directly trace their roots to the Ladies' Library Association here in Kalamazoo.”
“It’s a quaint name and people look at us and wonder but it’s precious to us because we are the third oldest women’s club in the country and the oldest in Michigan," said Cottrell. "And, there’s always been activity here in this building. We’ve always maintained our programs. We’ve never had a down time where we were not the Ladies' Library Association of Kalamazoo.”