Pre-1926 Library Card (Downtown Branch) issued to Mrs. Sam K. Gardner

Pre-1926 Library Card for the Detroit Public Library (Downtown Branch) issued to Mrs. Sam K. Gardener

Early Detroit Library History

The Detroit Library Association’s City Library of Detroit

John Monteith (1788-1868), a soon-to-be Presbyterian minister and professor of Greek, Latin and Hebrew classics, arrived in Detroit on June 25, 1816 after accepting a job offered by Governor Lewis Cass (1782-1866) to come to Detroit to “introduce the gospel to Detroit.”   Detroit, having a population of less than 1,000 inhabitants in 1816, was lacking the intellectual and educational resources that Monteith had grown used to at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Anticipating the harsh winter months ahead, Monteith had his private library shipped to Detroit, along with a number of new books from a bookseller in Pittsburgh.  However, these shipments didn’t arrive until Spring 1817, leaving Monteith with little intellectual stimulation during the winter of 1816-1817.    On March 17, 1817, Rev. John Monteith (1788-1868 ), penned in his diary, “a meeting of citizens is held to determine the guise of a public library.  Attendance is good.  Appointed a committee to prepare a Constitution.  Adjourned to the 24th.”   Detroit’s first library was borne out of Monteith’s disappointment and discontent during that long winter season. 

As with most early libraries, the City Library was not accessible to all.  Shares for the new library were purchased for $5.00/share (approx.. $100 today).  One share entitled the shareholder to borrow one book at a time and to cast one vote during elections.  Additional shares increased these privileges.  On April 6, 1817, Monteith “set out on horseback through Canada for N.Y. & Princeton” to purchase books for the new library and to complete his ordination at the Princeton Theological Seminary.  While in New York, Monteith carefully selected approximately 300 volumes to be shipped to Detroit. The Library opened Monday, August 4, 1817.

Detroit Gazette, August 1, 1817, page 3
Detroit Gazette, January 2, 1818, page 3
Detroit Gazette, December 11, 1818, page 3
The Detroit Classical Academy in 1825. Location of the City Library from 1819 until 1831. Also home to a number of higher education institutions, including Catholopistemiad, later known as the University of Michigania, of which Rev. Monteith served as President. The University of Michigan, as we know it today, relocated to Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1837. Etching by Wilfred B. Shaw. (Public Domain)

On July 23, 1821, Monteith ended his duties as librarian of the City Library having accepted a professorship at Hamilton College in New York.  It wasn’t until October 1829, when Gershom Mott Williams (1810-1857) was officially appointed librarian of the City Library, that the practice of librarian duties fell into the hands of teachers of the Detroit Classical Academy.  Over the years, shares in the library waned and financial strain was ever present.  In 1829, to renew interest in the library, and to be competitive with new reading rooms and clubs that were opening in shops and bookstores in Detroit, hours were increased.  Unfortunately, any attempts to revitalize the City Library became useless when the Academy building was turned over to the newly-elected Commissioners of Common Schools, and the rent-free arrangement was ended.  During the summer of 1831, the City Library inventory was turned over to the newly-formed and short-lived Detroit Athenaeum.  Library books, record and furniture were moved to the Athenaeum’s rented rooms above the Newberry & Kercheval’s clothing store on the “southwest corner of Jefferson Avenue and Griswold Street.” 

The Detroit Young Men’s Society Library

In 1832, a group of young men in Detroit desiring “intellectual improvement” approached local business leaders to assist in the establishment of a library.  As a result of that initial meeting, The (Detroit) Young Men’s Society was established to promote the “general diffusion of knowledge and a condensation of the talents and acquirements of the young men of Detroit, for intellectual and moral improvement.” The Articles of the Constitution of the Society were published in the January 30, 1833 edition of the Democratic Free Press.  Men under the age of thirty were eligible for membership upon sponsorship by a society member, a majority vote by the Directors, and a membership fee of $2 dollars. Upon reaching the age of thirty, members had “no voice” in the Society, and were declared “honorary members.” The Society advertised topics for weekly debates in the local newspapers, and held lectures by prominent business and political leaders. 

Detroit Free Press, 18 Sep 1846, Fri · Page 2
Detroit Free Press, 04 Nov 1850, Mon · Page 2

Prior to the 1850 construction of the Young Men’s Society Hall on Jefferson Avenue between Bates and Randolph, the Society library was house at the office of J. W. Baxter, Esq. and Horace Hallock’s clothing store at 124 Jefferson Avenue. The Society remained in the Jefferson Avenue building until 1861 until a new hall that could accommodate over 1,500 people was constructed a block away on Woodbridge Street.  While the new hall was in great demand at first, public interest waned as newer facilities were constructed in Detroit.  By 1875, deep in debt, the Society sold the property and rented rooms on the first floor of the Merrill block. 

“The Merrill Block,” From The History of Detroit and Michigan Or, The Metropolis Illustrated; a Chronological Cyclopaedia of the Past and Present, Including a Full Record of Territorial Days in Michigan, and the Annals of Wayne County · Volume 1, by Silas Farmer, 1889. 
Detroit Free Press, 17 Aug 1875, Tue · Page 2

In August of 1882, the Society began liquidating their assets of art work and over 16,000 volumes, and ceased operations on September 30th bringing to close the 50-year history of the Young Men’s Society in Detroit.

“The End of the Detroit Young Men’s Society After Fifty Years of Service,” Detroit Free Press, 01 Oct 1882, Sun · Page 6

The Detroit Reading Room

The Detroit Reading Room was established in 1837 by Benjamin Kingsbury, Jr. and George F. Burnham, editors of the Evening Spectator, a semiweekly literary gazette published between 1836-1838.  Located at Republican Hall, 154 ½ Jefferson Avenue, the Detroit Reading Room made available to [who could join] “the first periodicals in the country” and “important monthlies and quarterlies.”  Use of the library was for subscribers only (and visitors to the city if introduced by a subscribing member).  The subscription fee was $4/year.   

A glimpse of Detroit in 1837.  From The History of Detroit and Michigan Or, The Metropolis Illustrated; a Chronological Cyclopaedia of the Past and Present, Including a Full Record of Territorial Days in Michigan, and the Annals of Wayne County · Volume 1, by Silas Farmer, 1889

.Other Libraries

Kingsbury and Burnham established a Circulating Library that offered the “popular literature of the day,” for a subscription fee of $5 yearly.

From The Directory of the City of Detroit With its Environs, and Register of Michigan, for the Year 1837 by Julius P. Bolivar MacCabe (public domain)

George W. Pattison, Rare and Antiquarian Book Dealer, offered a circulating library at his book store on Grand River Avenue.

Detroit Free Press, 25 Jul 1880, Sun · Page 14

The Detroit Public Library

The seeds for the Detroit Public Library were planted in 1835 when the Michigan state constitution contained a provision that “all fines and penalties collected in criminal cases should be devoted to the establishment and maintenance of public libraries.” In 1842 a similar resolution was adopted by Detroit’s Board of School Inspectors.  However, it wasn’t until 1859, when a Detroit newspaperman, Henry E. Baker proposed establishing a committee to look into the whether the Board received “its proper share of such fines.”  After investigation, it was reported that library funds were directed elsewhere.  A lawsuit brought by the Committee against the courts of the county eventually reached the Supreme Court of Michigan, and it was decided that “about three-fifths of $17,000 collected in fines during the preceding years belonged to the city.”  Steps to establish the first public library were taken immediately upon receipt of the positive outcome of the lawsuit.  Recitation Room No. 3 on the second floor of the old capitol was “fitted up with a table, chairs, bookshelves and a lamp as a library and committee room for the use of the board and teachers.”   In 1861, the public library fund received a settlement of $7,000.  Four years later, on March 25, 1865, a public library on the first floor of the old capitol building was formally opened to the public, and on May 2, 1865, the library was available for circulation.  The number of volumes at the old capitol building library were approximately 9,000. 

1847 photo of Michigan’s first state capitol building located in Detroit, Michigan.  In 1847, Michigan’s capitol city was changed to Lansing, and the “Old Capitol Building” became the Capitol Union School, and the location of Detroit’s first public library in 1865.  Author: unknown.  (Public Domain)

 On January 22, 1877, a new library building on Center Park was opened to the public containing over 33,000 volumes.

Detroit’s Centre Park Library designed by Brush & Smith (1906). Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. No known restrictions on publication; Call Number: LC-D4-19537 [P&P]

By the early 20th century, Detroit’s public library was again in need of additional space.  Accordingly, on March 29, 1921, a new public library designed by Cass Gilbert, architect of the United States Supreme Court, was opened on Woodward Avenue.  A grant in the amount of $750,000 from Andrew Carnegie aided in the construction of the main library and eight branch libraries throughout Detroit.  The new main library opened with over half million publications. 

Detroit Public Library System currently has 21 branch libraries, and over 7.5M publications. The main library continues to operate from the Woodward Avenue location. 

Detroit Public Library built 1922. Published by Detroit Publishing Co. (Public domain)