Chapter History

History of the Michigan Chapter, Special Libraries Association — Part I

By Dianne Lee Bish, Archivist

The “Roaring Twenties!!”  The time of “flappers” and bathtub gin and a host of other things!  What a wild time in which to begin a new group for librarians — “special” ones, at that!  But that is exactly what happened.  What is now known as the Michigan Chapter, Special Libraries Association went through a three-year gestation period, and was “born” on March 14, 1929.

This first of four articles on the history of the chapter will focus on the beginnings, from the first informal meetings to the signing of the “Petition for Local Chapter in Detroit, Michigan.”  Following articles will trace the development of the chapter to the present  For now, let us go back in time to the 1920’s.

The first meeting of record is an afternoon session for Special Librarians which was held at the Wayne County Library Association Meeting at the Scripps Branch Library.  The chairman of that meeting, Miss Maud Carabin was absent, so Miss Jane Hicks of Ford Motor Company served as temporary chairman.  The special librarians at the meeting “…agreed… that an association should be organized to meet once every two months.”  That was on March 11, 1926.

Nothing further about the proposal is known until August 1927 when a letter from Miss Christine H. Haller (Detroit Public Library, Business and Commerce Division) was sent to thirty-six selected libraries in the Detroit area, concerning the Michigan Library Association’s annual convention to be held in Jackson that year.  Miss Haller identified herself as the Acting Secretary for the Round Table for Research Librarians and stated in the letter, “It is proposed to include on the program a Round Table discussion of some of the problems which concern particularly those librarians who are dealing with limited and special field of research…It will be the first of its king in Michigan….”

Twenty-seven librarians attended that Round Table on October 15, 1927, with Mr. Francis Goodrich, Associate Librarian at the University of Michigan, presiding.  A decision was made to continue to hold such Round Tables for librarians dealing with special collections at future annual conventions of the M.L.A.  A letter from Miss Haller to Mr. William Webb (then President of M.L.A.) reported the decision of the group and stated, “Mr. Bishop named it Round Table for Business and Research Libraries, for he as well as Mr. Strohm not excluding myself abhor the term ‘Special Libraries’.”

After the M.L.A. convention, a group of librarians, identifying themselves as “Special Libraries of Detroit” began announcing meetings, one on October 18, 1927 (that possibly never took place) and another on January 31, 1928 at Detroit Edison Company.  The topics of the latter meeting were “Library Bulletins and Obsolescence Problems,” and the charge of $1.00 included a luncheon.

By the autumn of 1928, the group changed its name to “Detroit Group of Librarians of Special Libraries”, and a letter was sent by Grace England, Chairman, listed meetings to be held on October 16 at the Detroit Institute of Arts, on October 19 at the annual M.L.A. Convention in Lansing, and on December 5 a the Fort Shelby Hotel.  A letter from Louise C. Grace (Grace and Holiday Advertising Council), designated Chairman of the Special Libraries Section of M.L.A., also announced a Round Table to be held at the M.L.A. annual convention.  Topics would include public library cooperation with special libraries.  Here apparently is shown a relation between the annual meetings of the variously named Special librarians group in Detroit.  The currents of motion generated by both parts began to coincide an flow stronger together.

The next available information is from a letter written by Grace England on January 8, 1929, to Mary H. Brigham, Executive Secretary of the Special Libraries Association.  Ms. England described the Detroit group as being “…very simple, there being no officers other than the Chairman, no dues, no secretary, ‘no nothing’ you might say.”  She then explained that various libraries had been the sites of meetings, with the host or hostess librarians acting as temporary Chairmen.  She further stated that affiliation with S.L.A. had come up “only casually” and that “…there is a general sentiment against anything which will in any way increase formality or add any complications to our organization.”  However, Ms. England herself, Chairman of the group as a whole, believed that a more formal organization and affiliation with the national group would be to the benefit of the group.  In the letter, she stated, “I have planned to bring the matter before the group at some time during the year, …presenting the suggestions to the members for their decision.  There will be another meting shortly and I will writer you after that.”

No records of any meetings can be found in the Chapter Archives, but one may safely say that at least one meeting took place between January 8 and March 14, 1929.  At some meeting during that time, the group voted “yes” on becoming a Chapter of S.L.A. and Ms. England communicated the decision to S.L.A.

In a letter dated March 14, 1929, from Rose L. Vormelker, Secretary of S.L.A. to Ms. England, acknowledgement of the group’s decision was made.  “The next step,” Ms. Vormelker wrote, “is the formal petition (suggested from enclosed) which should be signed by ten members of the Special Libraries Association who are in your group.”

The petition itself is a simple page, devoid of ornamentation, which states:  “Petition for Local Chapter in Detroit Michigan.  In accordance with the provisions of the Constitution of the Special Libraries Association, we, the undersigned petition the Executive Board of the Special Libraries Association the privilege of organizing a local chapter of the Association in Detroit, Michigan.”  In order of signing, the ten signatures of members are:  (1) Caroline W. Lutz, G.M. (Later President, 1930-31); (2) Dorothy Cosford; (3) Ada M. Mosher, Detroit P.L.; (4) Ione W. Ely, Detroit P.L. (later Secretary-Treasurer, 1930-31); (5) Louise Thompson, Detroit P.L. (later Director, 1933-35 and 1940-41, and Treasurer, 1937-38); (6) Grace A. England, Detroit P.L. (President, 1928-29); (7) Donna L. Watkins, Detroit P.L., (later Director, 1936-38); (8) Elizabeth W. Bushnell; (9) Frances E. Curtiss, Detroit News (later President, 1931-32); and (10) Louise P. Dorn, Detroit Edison (later President, 1934-36).  In addition to these then, five others have been listed as Charter Members:  (1) Marjorie J. Darrach, W.S.U. Medical School; (2) Louise C. Grace, Grace and Holiday Advertising Council (later Director, 1932-34 and President, 1945-46); (3) Jane L. Hicks, Dearborn High School (later Vice-President, 1934-35); (4) Merle Manning, Detroit Edison (later Treasurer, 1941-43; Vice-President, 1945-47; President, 1947-48; and Director, 1948-50); and (5) Ford M. Pettit, Detroit News (later President, 1929-30, and Director, 1945-47).  These individuals then were the forefathers and foremothers of the Chapter.

The formal petition was merely paperwork to be completed and returned.  In her letter of March 14, 1929 to Grace England, Rose Vormelker informed her that “As your letter came the day before I left to attend the Executive Board Meeting, I took it along for official action by the Board.  There it was ‘moved, seconded, and carried’ to accept the request from Detroit ‘subsequent to obtaining the necessary ten signatures.’ ”  Thus, the Chapter may celebrate March 14, 1929, the date of the petition for affiliation with the Special Libraries Association, as the founding date.

During the same time (1926-29) that the group of special librarians was rushing toward the formation of a Chapter of S.L.A., other events of importance occurred.  The Book-of-the-Month Club began its existence in April of 1926.  Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight took place in 1927.  On the lighter side, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon was made in 1928.  But none of these events had such an effect on everyone in the United States as did the panic on Wall Street in the fall of 1929.  This happened just as the newly formed Detroit Chapter of S.L.A. began its first year; special librarians are a hardy breed, however, and the small group continued its existence and grew during the ten-year depression that followed the stock market crash in 1929,  But that’s “another story,” and will be Part II of this History.

History of the Michigan Chapter, Special Libraries Association — Part II

The headline of Variety for October 1929 laconically stated, “Wall Street Lays and Egg,” thus announcing heard times for the country.  However, they were growing times for the newly formed (hatched?) Detroit Chapter of S.L.A.

During its first full year of existence, 1929-30 the Detroit Chapter held monthly noon luncheons, with average attendance of 35.  Membership at the end of that period consisted of 14 active and 3 institutional members; one year later there were 22 active, 4 institutional members, and 21 associate members.  The Chapter has continued to grow ever since.

The first Constitution and By-Laws were adopted on February 9, 1931, calling for two officers (President and Secretary-Treasurer) and three committees (Membership, Program, and Publicity).  Caroline W. Lutz, President, had this to say:  “With the establishment of the office of Secretary-Treasurer, I hope we shall be able to keep the minutes of our meetings.  No records have been kept in other years and many a librarian would despair should she be asked for complete information regarding them….Some day some one may want to write a history of the Detroit Chapter”.

A big event for the new Chapter occurred on June 13, 1931, when “Detroit Day” was celebrated by members of S.L.A. attending the annual convention in Cleveland.  On Friday, June 12, members in Cleveland boarded a steamer at 11:30 P.M. and were transported to Detroit, arriving Saturday morning.  A luncheon at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club (cost $2.00) was followed by a garden party at Detroit Public Library.  The evening’s entertainment consisted of a theater party and buffet supper at the Civic Theater (cost $2.00), after which weary members took the steamer back to Cleveland.  Later reports indicated members enjoyed this excursion immensely, and became aware of the new Detroit Chapter.

At the low point of the Depression in 1932 (monthly unemployment averaging 12 million for the country).  The Detroit Chapter continued to grow, so much that a name change was felt to be in order.  The President’s report for the year 1931-32 stated that, “At the annual meeting of SLA of Detroit, the name of the organization was changed to SLA of Michigan, inasmuch as it is the only chapter in Michigan and we hope by so doing to interest business librarians out side of Detroit.”  Members numbered 66 at that time, and membership was growing.

An Employment Committee had been established by 1932, to aid in placing special librarians.  There were problems of members losing their jobs, and the Committee tried to help in finding new positions.  The loss of jobs is also reflected in various Treasurer’s statements of that time; most balances are around $30.00.

At a board meeting on November 21, 1933, “…the Board decided that $50 was the absolute minimum on which the chapter could function….”

A “Union Serial List of Detroit” was a project much in need in the early days of the Chapter.  In the Chapter year 1933-34, a report of the costs, etc., was prepared and submitted to the Civil Works Administration, but the government curtailed support of the CWA before the project could even be started.  The project was tabled.

Japan began invading Manchuria, FDR began his first term of office the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition, the Supreme Court voided the ban on James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the Chapter continued to grow during the early 1930’s.  Meetings were held in various locations, including Greenfield Village, the GM Proving Grounds in Milford, the Belcrest Hotel, the Detroit News and others.  Topics varied quite a bit, from programs on library-related subjects to programs on the activities in Europe, the Depression, and other “hot issues.

On January 24, 1935, the Chapter “…petitioned the Mayor of Detroit to endorse a budget item providing for Wednesday service in Detroit Public Library, thereby restoring six-day library week.”  Apparently even then, a strong relationship between the special libraries in the area and the Detroit Public Library existed, as special librarians borrowed from DPL’s collections, and extended special reference courtesies in return.

In November of 1935, members began receiving a new publication as one of the benefits of membership.  The Bulletin began publication with Volume 1, Number 1, a one-page newsy item well received by members.  From this small beginning, our present Bulletin evolved into a many-paged quarterly, still well appreciated by members.

The Chapter entered the realm of state politics for the first time in 1937.  At the Executive Committee meeting of March 3, “…we drafted resolutions to be sent to Lansing…” in support of State Aid for public libraries (bills sponsored by the Legislative Committee of the Michigan Library Association).  A letter dated March 4 was sent to the membership at large form the Executive Committee, stating that “Any comments…will be greatly received by your President if you will telephone her at the Detroit News…by Wednesday, March 19.  If we do not hear from you by that time we will assume that you approve the committee’s policy in this matter.”  The letter was signed by Esther Hooper, President.  The Annual Report of the Secretary reported that “…the vote returned was in favor of approval of the bills and the President ans Secretary sent individual letters to all state senators and representatives, putting the Chapter on record as supporting the bills.”  (Note: the bills passed in 1937.)

An interesting bit of publicity highlighted various chapter members as Sally Woodward, WXYZ commentator, hosted a program on special librarians in July1937.  “If you like peaceful routine, and a quiet life, you’d better look for something else.  I hardly think you’ll find it as the desk of a special librarian,” she stated, on the air.  (A copy of the transcript is available in the Chapter Archives.)

By the end of the 1930’s, as FDR was appealing to Hitler and Mussolini to cooperate in the peaceful solution of un-settled European problems on one hand and beefing up the nation’s defense budget on the other hand, and a Britain and France declared war on Germany, the chapter membership rose to over 100 for the first time (105 to be exact.)  Attendance averaged 57 with 5 meetings during the chapter year 1938-39.  National President Alma Mitchell was guest speaker at one of the meetings.

In late 1939, the question of S.L.A. becoming part of the American Library Association was an issue.  A letter from Mary Giblin, President of the Chapter at that time echoed the sentiments of the Chapter: “S.L.A. members have worked too arduous and long to become an entity, and to submerge that entity right now, when we have become a recognized professional group that is serving trades and professions as specialists….”  Ms. Giblin also put the Chapter on record as agreeing to abolish the “local members” category, by which persons could be members of local chapters without being members of the national S.L.A.  The Chapter was part of the majority, and S.L.A. remained separate from A.L.A., and the “local members” category was abolished.

A move to bring the national conference of S.L.A. to Detroit in 1943 began with a resolution passed at the meeting on October 14, 1941.  However, Pearl Harbor became the focus of world attention on December 7, and the country entered the war.  After the first of the year, it was disclosed at a special meeting that the Los Angeles Chapter had withdrawn its invitation for the national conference because of war conditions.   At that meeting on February 16, 1942 a motion was passed that the “…Michigan Chapter write the Executive Board that it believed that war effort demands made the cancellation of the 1942 convention advisable.”  However, in the event that the Board decided that the plans for the 1942 conventions should be carried out in modified form, the Chapter wished Detroit to be considered as convention headquarters and assured the Board of its whole hearted cooperation.

At the next meeting on March 27, 1942, the decision of the Executive Board to “…go through with plans for a 1942 convention to be held at the Hotel Statler in Detroit from June 18-20 inclusive” was announced.  George Gilfillan, then President of the Chapter, was appointed general chairman of the convention, and the tentative plans “…are for a war convention with a minimum of social activity.”

The national conference was held in Detroit, and it was strictly business for the most part.  In a letter to Mildred Treat, then Archivist, President Gilfillan stated “You can enter in the archives that the Chapter put over a darned good convention and that the folks turned in as nice a bit of work as has been done anywhere.”

The Archives Committee had only recently been established in 1941, with Ms. Treat appointed as the first archivist.  One of the first things she noticed, in gathering the records of the chapter, is that certain records were missing.  “Did you know there are no minutes for 1940?” she asked President Gilfillan in a letter dated January 21, 2942.  (Note:  to this date, no minutes can be located in the archives.)  However, she was successful in finding many items and starting the collection.  Later on, in 1947, the archives were deposited in the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library, where they may be found today.)

A May 14, 1942 report on the Union List of Serials disclosed that 4 WPA workers had prepared “…one Master card file alphabetically arranged, indicating by symbol the location of the periodical holdings of 38 libraries in metropolitan Detroit.”  However, work was brought to a full stop as the workers were called away for defense jobs.  The Union List was not ready for publication just yet.

By the end of the chapter year 1941-42, members were being urged to buy war bonds and were being kept up to date on members in the service.  The war years had begun, and special librarians joined in the efforts at home to help the country’s efforts.  The membership count of 117 would be added to in the decade to come, and the chapter would experience further growth and new activities.

Michigan Chapter Past Presidents

Several dedicated individuals have served the Michigan Chapter SLA during its history. These past presidents have shown their commitment to the organization by serving the members of the Chapter in its highest capacity. This list indicates the diversity of people and organizations that make up the Michigan Chapter SLA. View the list of Michigan Chapter SLA Past Presidents.