Kalamazoo Public Library: The 1939 Film

A Desperate Situation

The original Kalamazoo Public Library building, built in 1893, was already running out of space by the 1920s. The library had purchased the adjacent Peck and Kauffer houses on Rose Street, and the carriage house behind them, which were also overflowing. Many volumes were in closed storage at the Washington Square branch. In October 1938, the library had to rent additional space in the nearby Prange building to relieve congestion. Staff members were working in the aisles between the bookstacks. While conducting a survey of Michigan libraries, Professor J. S. Cleavinger stated, “Kalamazoo needs a new library as badly as any community its size of which I know.” The situation was desperate. The library was governed by the Kalamazoo Public School Board of Education, which could not allot enough money to allow the library to keep pace with current progress. A fifteen-mill tax limitation meant that private funding was essential.

The 1939 Promotional Film

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Kalamazoo Public Library  (1939)
Silent black & white film, 31 min., not rated

In 1939, the Friends of the Library responded to the crisis by financing a film depicting the services and crowded facilities. Their goal was to bring attention to the physical needs of the library, and to stimulate monetary gifts to provide for a new building. The film was produced by the Educational Film Service of Battle Creek, and was directed by Keith Elliot, assisted by Ellwood Bancroft. The scenarios in the film were arranged by Miss Flora B. Roberts, chief librarian, and Miss Eleanor Ricker, extension librarian.

The thirty minute silent film shows a businessman and his son using the library, and the many services the library could provide for both of them. The businessman is invited to serve on the Friends of the Library board. The library director then takes him on a tour which provides additional opportunities to highlight services and the extremely cramped facilities. It also contrasts the buildings of Kalamazoo from 1890 with those of 1939, which emphasizes the fact that the library building had not been updated like so many others. The film was available to be shown to various groups in town, such as the Ladies Library Association.

A New Library Building

Funding a new library building was an ongoing issue starting in 1929, when a study for a new building was tabled due to the Great Depression, and later when attentions were focused on the World War II efforts. A 1949 bond issue which would have allocated $740,000 for a new library building was voted down. Finally, in early 1955, a citizen’s committee was formed to study library needs and to formulate a plan for a new building. Their work was rewarded that October when a $1.2 million plan, to be paid for with a one-mill tax levied from 1956 to 1960, was brought to vote. It passed by a three-to-one margin. On 25 May 1959, a new library building finally opened, three decades after the need was first realized.