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In 1866 a group of Ann Arbor women formed a small subscription library to fill the need for a free, public library in Ann Arbor. Initially, they occupied a rented space above Main Street. Over time, their collection grew, and by 1885 they had purchased land and erected a building. The Ladies supported their endeavors with concerts, strawberry festivals and other fundraising activities, and soon amassed a sizable collection. In 1916, on the 50th anniversary of their association, the Ladies Library Association transferred their collection to the Ann Arbor Public School District. Since that time they have remained active supporters of the Library, using the income from their endowment to purchase a beautiful collection of art books for the Library, and to furnish the branches with original works of art.

In 1866, one year after Appomattox, 35 Ann Arbor women put in three dollars each to start a lending-library club and pledged a dollar a year to buy books, though you could donate books in lieu of the fee. As the collection grew year by year, the ladies moved the books from one downtown room to another, each bigger than the last, until in 1880 they built their own building on Huron near Division.

In 1902, Anna Botsford Bach, then president of the Ladies Library Association, suggested applying for a Carnegie grant to build a city library. The city's application was supported by the school board, the city council, and the Ladies Library Association. But after Carnegie granted $20,000 for the project in 1903, the applicants could not agree among themselves on a site. (The school board wanted the new library to be near the high school so the students could continue using it. The Ladies Library Association thought an entirely separate location would better serve the general public.) The deadlock was resolved only after the application was resubmitted in 1904 without the participation of the Ladies Library Association. This time, the city and school board were awarded $30,000.

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