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Kalamazoo Public Library History

Kalamazoo’s Literary Centerpiece Since 1872


Kalamazoo Public Library c.1900. Local History Room

“In September, 1872, we, (the committee) found a small library put up in two small closets, without classification, and uncatalogued. Books had been drawn during a part of each Saturday afternoon; selections being made from books brought out of the closets by the librarian, who was a member of the board.

* * * After repairing about 260 volumes, the library was found to number 2,800 volumes.* * *

Having appointed Miss Wolcott librarian, the report says: No new policy should have been more fortunate in its executive (execution perhaps) than was ours in respect to this library, in the appointment of Miss Jennie M. Wolcott. Instead of the library being opened to the school children only, as heretofore, it was now opened to every resident of the district.”

Kalamazoo Gazette, 24 July 1881

kpl-bookplate-160.jpg
A bookplate used by the library for many years

The origins of the Kalamazoo Public Library were humble. In 1860 the local school district inherited 123 volumes from a failed township library. With that tiny collection, a library was opened for a single hour per week, its use limited to students of the school district and their parents. It grew through the Civil War years until it had 2,800 books, and opened to the general public on 12 October 1872. At least briefly, its first home was somewhere on Main Street (now Michigan Avenue), but when Corporation Hall opened on South Burdick Street in 1867, the library moved into one of two small rooms in that building. When the Ladies Library Association vacated the other room in 1878, the public library expanded into their space. By 1885 it was open six days a week and possessed more than 11,000 volumes. Still cramped, it moved into rented quarters above Wortley’s Jewelry Store at 121 W. Main sometime before 1889, where it remained until its own new building opened in 1893.

From that modest beginning, Kalamazoo Public Library has continued to grow until it now offers 120,000 people almost 400,000 books and a variety of other media from five buildings. The library continued to function under the direction of the board of education for more than a century until 1990, when voters agreed to form a district library which would function under its own board of trustees.

View: Catalogue of Kalamazoo Public Library: 1890

Growth and Branch-ing Out

The library’s early headquarters in cramped rented facilities gave way to a fine new Romanesque structure built on property purchased from local businessman Robert R. Howard and completed in 1893 with a $50,000 gift from Dr. and Mrs. E. H. Van Deusen. By the late 1920s the library had grown so much that it spilled over into the adjacent Peck and Kauffer houses on Rose Street. The depression and World War II delayed a much needed new building, but after a spirited campaign, and a favorable millage vote in 1955, the library’s second new building replaced the old one on 25 May 1959. The library continued to grow, filling even this new facility to bursting.

The departure of the Kalamazoo Public Museum in 1996 provided the opportunity for a major renovation of the existing building to take advantage of the vacated space, and to add the third floor that was planned when it was built. Over the years, the library also added four branches, Washington Square, Eastwood, Powell and Oshtemo, each of which began in a school and eventually acquired its own building.

Public library, Kalamazoo, Michigan / Patton & Fisher, Architects, Chicago. Published 1891. Library of Congress

Service Firsts

Library services have grown along with the buildings and the collections. In 1896 KPL became one of the first 10 libraries in the nation to establish a children’s room. A depository of government documents was established here in 1907, the only one in the area for many years thereafter. In 1929 it became the first public library in the country to provide moving picture film service. Later it added sound recordings and framed art. In 1972, the massive task of indexing the Kalamazoo Gazette was undertaken.

Kalamazoo Public Library. c.1900. Local History Room

The Gazette index became the first in a series of tools developed by the library to provide local information to its clients. The law library was transferred from the courthouse into the newly renovated library building, thus greatly increasing the hours that the law collection is staffed and available for use.

Embracing Technology

Developing technology has allowed the library to keep pace with increasing information needs. A Gaylord charging machine was installed in 1938 to expedite the circulation of books. Eventually it was replaced by a photographic charging system, and later still by the present computerized version. The advent of microfilm in 1946 gave researchers access to many more materials than there would otherwise have been space for. Now computers allow more flexible ways of locating books, the creation of local databases, and access to worldwide resources with a few keystrokes.

Kalamazoo’s Cultural Development

The library has played a significant role in the development of other Kalamazoo cultural institutions. The origin of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum dates back to a collection of shells, marbles, and fossils that were given to the library in 1881. As the accumulation of artifacts grew, a distinct museum evolved, but it remained part of the Kalamazoo Public Library organization until 1984 and continued to share its building for another dozen years after that. For nearly 20 years, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts also shared library quarters. The school libraries of the Kalamazoo School District blossomed under the administration of the Kalamazoo Public Library until they were transferred to the jurisdiction of the superintendent of schools in 1966.

Second floor Reference Room, Central Library, 2005 Photo: Keith Howard.

National Library of the Year

For more than a century and a quarter, Kalamazoo Public Library has grown steadily from a few shelves of books in a room above a store to the vibrant institution that it is today. The library now has five new or newly refurbished buildings, a continually growing collection, improved technology to meet increasing needs, and a dedicated and experienced staff that is constantly planning for the future. Its efforts in technology, pioneering legislation and collaboration with other community institutions resulted in the national Library of the Year Award for 2002.

Millage Vote History

Kalamazoo citizens and voters historically have strongly valued and supported the civic and cultural life of our community – that support includes the Kalamazoo Public Library. Voters have approved every library operating millage since KPL’s first separate millage in 1974.

Date Election Result
1955 Community votes funds for construction and furnishing of a new main library building. Issue passed in every precinct, with a 3 to 1 majority.
2-12-1974 Separate School Board of Education meetings established for handling of library matters. School Board approved separating library millage request; 2 mills in place.
6-11-1974 First separate KPL millage election held. Requested 2.4 mills for one year. Passed 2 to 1.
6-10-1975 Requested renewal of current levy of 2.3 mills for one year. Passed; overwhelmingly approved.
6-15-1976 Requested 2.6 (.3 mill increase) for three years.  Passed 2 to 1; passed in every precinct. Levied 2.5 mills.
6-12-1979 Requested 3.2 mills for three years. Passed (1,653 – 1,520). Levied 2.9 mills.
4-27-1982 Requested 3.2 mills renewal for three years. Passed by 66%. Levied 3.0 mills first year, 3.2 mills each succeeding year.
3-26-1985 Requested 3.2 mills renewal for three years and .5 mill increase, also for three years. Passed 3.2 renewal; .5 increase defeated.
3-8-1988 Requested 3.2 mills renewal for three years. Passed (school millage defeated in this election).
6-12-1990 Requested 2.88 mills for twenty years. First request by newly established Kalamazoo Public Library District. Passed 3 to 1.
3-6-1995 Requested additional 1.1926 mills for twenty years to enhance services through redesigned, renovated and new buildings, increased materials and technology, additional staff, and a new bookmobile. Approved in 25 of 31 precincts; passed by 61%. This rate has been rolled back to 1.1801 mills due the 1978 Headlee Amendment to the Michigan constitution.
5-5-2009 Kalamazoo Public Library requested a renewal for twenty years of the 2.88 mills approved in 1990 – the library’s main operating millage. This rate has been rolled back to 2.7782 due the 1978 Headlee Amendment to the Michigan constitution. Passed 3 to 1.
5-6-2014 Kalamazoo Public Library requested a renewal for twenty years of the 1.1801 mills approved in 1995. (This rate was rolled back from 1.1926 due the 1978 Headlee Amendment to the Michigan constitution.) Passed 3 to 1.

 

Kalamazoo Public Library Directors

1872-1875 Jennie Wolcott Kent
1875-1918 Isabella C. Roberts
1918-1942 Flora B. Roberts
1942-1948 Jeanne Griffin
1948-1956 William Chait
1956-1986 Mark Crum
1987-2004 Saul J. Amdursky
2004-2017 Ann S. Rohrbaugh
2017- Ryan Wieber

Last updated 10 December 2019.

Sources

Books

Kalamazoo City Directories, 1867-1893.


Articles

“The Public Library”

Kalamazoo Gazette,  24 July 1881, p.4.

“Interview with David Milling, Architect, and Michael Hayden, Artist”

Kalamazoo Public Library, c.1996, uncataloged


Manuscripts

Brief History of the Kalamazoo Public Library 1872-1922

by Isabella C. Roberts and Flora B. Roberts
Kalamazoo Public Library Archives


Media

Kalamazoo Public Library, 1939 promotional film

The KPL Story, 1998 mini-documentary

A Video Introduction, 1998 made-for-video documentary

An Interview with David Milling and Michael Hayden, 1998


Photo Galleries

Kalamazoo Public Library 1893-1957

Kalamazoo Public Library 1958-2005

 

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