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Paging Through Northville's Library History

West Cady Street structure traces roots to Mill Race Village buildings.

This is the second of a two-part column on the history of the Northville library. The first part featured in the April 11 Past Tense focused on the founding and early history of the library, and the influence of one of its most notable benefactors, Mary E. Lapham.


In the first quarter of the 20th century, Northville’s library remained under the auspices of the Ladies Library Association despite the loss of its founding chairperson Mary E. Lapham, who left Northville to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor. Without Lapham’s financial support, the library could no longer afford a paid librarian and was open only on Saturday afternoons and evenings.  The fee for membership was 50-cents per year.

In 1926, by a special act of the Michigan Legislature, libraries were legally authorized to spend township funds for operations. Though much of Northville was still a village at that time (the city was not incorporated until 1955), use of funds from the township portion of the community made it possible for the library to take advantage of the new legislation. Township funding allowed the library to abandon its patron fees. Since that time, the Northville library has operated as a free public institution. In addition, funds were appropriated to hire a librarian at a wage of 35-cents an hour.

In March 1934, the Wayne County Library Board approved the extension of county library service to Northville. The county took over administration of the library and provided supervision by professional staff and regular delivery of new books and supplies. Northville Township was responsible for maintenance of the building and equipment as well as utilities. In April, the Northville Ladies Library Association ceased to operate. The monies remaining in its treasury were given equally to the three churches instrumental in the association’s formation. 

Among the conditions of turning over operations to the county were that the Northville Woman’s Club continue to be permitted use of the building one day per week, and persons living in the Village of Northville and the surrounding areas of Wayne, Oakland and Washtenaw counties be given free access to the library. Another condition was that any librarian in charge of the library be a resident of the township of Northville.

Anne Mannisto, assistant director of the Northville District Library, noted that among the reasons Northville was selected to become a county extension library was because it serviced multiple communities that did not have libraries of their own. These included Novi, Salem, Walled Lake, South Lyon and Wixom.

Though Northville lost local control of its library, county administration proved advantageous. Mannisto explained that as part of the Wayne County Library System, Northville could utilize the county’s interloan system. This system, still in existence today (but now known as The Library Network), allowed patrons to borrow books and materials from other county libraries including the Detroit Public Library, which at that time was among the largest city libraries in the nation.

In addition to the interloan system, the Northville library expanded its hours of operation, enhanced its book collection to include non-fiction and juvenile sections, and began a periodicals collection offering magazines and newspapers for circulation. In 1936, the library’s interior received a Works Progress Administration (WPA) facelift.

An October 2, 1936 article in The Northville Record noted: “The balcony, which is used for a stack room has been enclosed and the ceiling has been lowered 18 inches. The old wooden mantel about the fireplace has been replaced with a white one bought from the Farr Home in Detroit. A Detroit public library architect and carpenter made the plans for renovation and supervised the work, a WPA project.”

The restored balcony can still be seen in the New School Church in Mill Race Village. The fireplace was removed when the building was moved to Mill Race because it was not a feature of the original structure.

Another facelift would take place 10 years later, when in 1946, the Wayne County Library Board and the Northville Township Board collaborated on a redecorating and remodeling project that added comfortable chairs around the fireplace and child-sized tables and chairs.

The Village of Northville’s city incorporation in 1955 provided for the first time, shared financial support of the library between the city and township.  In 1959, the library implemented a non-resident borrowers’ fee of $10 per year, per family. It would become one of the oldest such fees in the county.

In 1964, the library moved out of the little church on South Wing Street after 70 some years to take up more spacious — though temporary — quarters in the new city hall across the street. was constructed on the site of the former Lapham homestead.

The former library building would become the board of education offices and later Hall. In the early 1970s, a developer unveiled plans to build a multi-story mall on the site of the old library building. Those plans included the demolition of the 1845 library structure.

The Northville Woman’s Club, which founded the Northville Historical Society in 1963, initiated a community-wide effort to save the “old library” which had served as its meeting place throughout most of the club’s history. The club’s efforts to preserve the structure eventually led to the formation of the Mill Race Village. The first building to be placed on the Mill Race site in 1972 was the former library – the New School Church.

By 1975, the library was again on the move, ironically to the site that uprooted its former headquarters  ­­– the multi-storied mall, later known as the MAGS (Michigan Association of Gift Salesmen) building and now Northville Square.

Hired in Northville in 1975 as a Community Services Librarian through a CETA (Comprehensive Education and Training Act) grant, Mannisto recalled the move to MAGS was a community effort, with residents turning out in force to push book carts from city hall across the street to the new mall location.

The move was temporary as township, city and school officials directed a Citizens’ Blue Ribbon Committee of 48 members to review a facility study and consider construction of a new library building on West Cady Street (on the site now occupied by the Northville District Library). The construction of a new facility was dependent on approval of federal grant monies from the Economic Development Administration.

In January 1977, the city council received notification that federal grants were approved for a new Township Hall complex on Six Mile and a remodeling of Northville’s Main Street School, but not construction of the library.

Two years later city voters approved a bond issue to expand city hall for a 6,500 square foot library. However, before the library was completed, the lease on the MAGS site expired, leaving the library to move into temporary headquarters for four months in the Recreation Building (now the Northville Community Senior Center).

By 1979, the Northville library was no longer administered by Wayne County. It would become part of the Shared Services Agreement of the City of Northville, Charter Township of Northville and Northville Public Schools. Other programs administered through shared services are Northville Parks and Recreation, Northville Youth Assistance and Northville Senior Adult Services.

By 1988, the growth in the community strained library resources, and a site committee again was appointed to consider construction of a new facility. The West Cady Street site was among the top contenders, but efforts were halted while township residents considered construction of a library at Six Mile and Sheldon roads on the former Haller family property. The following year, township voters rejected the Haller proposal.

By 1992, district library status was studied to help secure more stable funding, and by 1993, another site committee once again determined the West Cady Street location as the most desirable for a community library.

In 1994, Northville voters approved construction of a new library on the long-reviewed and recommended West Cady Street site to be operated in perpetuity with a dedicated millage. The library would operate as its own entity  – separate from shared services – with an elected board of trustees.

After five moves in three decades, the opened its doors on October 6, 1996. Its current site marks the first time the Northville library is housed in a building constructed to be – a library.

The windows on the building’s west side overlook the green space that stood behind the former Lapham homestead, where Mary Lapham  – the library’s first benefactor – once played as a child.

And at – created to save the “old library” building from demolition – the New School Church and J.M. Mead General Store stand as reminders of Northville’s library legacy.

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