Libraries… and the Ladies of the Club

    On Saturday, June 27, the Village of Paw Paw and Paw Paw District Library will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Paw Paw Public Library and the Paw Paw Community Center.  
      March was Women’s History Month.  Women’s studies as a discipline of academic study is barely 50 years old.  The first accredited academic course was taught at Cornell in 1969.  The first accredited women’s studies program became part of the curriculum at San Diego State in 1970, and the first scholarly journal, Feminist Studies, was published in 1972.  Emory University awarded the first PhD in women’s studies in 1990.
    Contemporary information on the history of the women’s club movement is limited because at the time of these movements there was little popular interest in the achievements of women.  The women’s club movement began after the Civil War.  
    As middle-class women began to have more leisure time; they began to gather for social and literary gatherings. These gatherings evolved into focusing on the welfare of their communities.  They established the idea that women had a moral duty and responsibility to transform, define, and shape public policy.
    A national umbrella organization, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs was founded in 1890.  There were 1 million members by 1910, and 1.5 million by 1914.  Though the years, many clubs became active in woman’s suffrage, supported the war effort during WWI, worked with the Red Cross, financed the Home Guard, and set up nationwide communication networks.  Club women looked around their towns, saw what needed to be done, and in doing so, they developed skills that made them the first generation of women to be elected and appointed in significant numbers to local and statewide offices.
    In response to the problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and political corruption between the 1890’s to the 1920’s many progressive ideals were pressed into action through the efforts of women’s clubs.  Without their efforts, American society may not have had kindergarten, juvenile courts, park conservation, as well as funds for schools, universities and… libraries.
    The Federal Census of 1890 declared the frontier officially closed. In areas west of the Appalachians, the focus of economic activity shifted from the establishment of new towns to the development of existing communities.  Small towns were eager to adopt the amenities available in urban environments; opera houses, fraternal lodges, commercial blocks and … libraries.
    By the turn of the century, residents of small towns were justifiably proud of the range of governmental, commercial, and cultural institutions that lined Main Street.  However, men and women looked on these developments from different perspectives.  For the most part men were interested in the commercial benefit of these kinds of enterprises, while women were looking for opportunities to create social betterment.
    Women were handicapped in their efforts by adhering to the established boundaries of appropriate female behavior and even more by not having access to the economic power necessary to accomplish dispensing culture.  Without cash at hand, women found alternative strategies for attracting support for libraries; bake sales, socials, and lectures.  This resulted in libraries being insubstantial, insecure, and essentially invisible.  
    Women’s clubs embraced the Carnegie library program as a means of erasing the precarious situation inherent in sustaining libraries. A Carnegie grant was the opportunity to acquire most of the funds necessary to establish a permanent home and the requirement that the library be supported by an annual tax ensured a steady and sustainable source of income.
    The General Federation of Women’s Clubs developed a national agenda for libraries across the country.  According to the American Library Association women’s clubs were responsible for helping to establish 75-80% of all public libraries in the United States.  
    The Paw Paw Coterie Club was established on October 22, 1890.  The early minutes of the Coterie Club record that the club regarded fostering interests in the cultural life of the community as their mandate.  The minutes also record that at the time of the inception of the club, their priority was in making books available to the community.
    In 1891, Coterie Club members selected 18 volumes as a test of community interest in a lending library.  Coterie Club member, Clara Anderson, (who would become Mrs. James Rennie in 1889), was appointed librarian.  In 1893, the club was holding meetings in a rented room.  The library was open to the public on Wednesday afternoons.  A fine of 5 cents per week for an overdue book helped pay the librarians salary of $10 a year.  
    Difficulties caused by the lack of a means to raise sufficient funds to support club activities and secure funds for a permanent home, meant that the Coterie Club moved five times in four years before finding a more permanent home in 1877.  The club relocated to the third floor of 143 W. Michigan, on the corner of Michigan and Kalamazoo.  It would be 1913 before fundraising efforts available to the club such as bake sales, socials, and fees for lectures enabled the Coterie Club to move into a permanent clubhouse located at 200 S. Kalamazoo.   
    An announcement appeared in the Free Press and Courier on January 25th, 1917, that a Coterie Club member, Mrs. Edward (Florence) Harvey would donate the select private library of her husband the Rev. Edward Harvey to the Village of Paw Paw providing a building suitable for a library could be found or erected to house the collection.  Within a week, the Village Council authorized a formal application to Andrew Carnegie for a library grant.
    On April 12, 1917, the village received the news that a Carnegie grant for $10,000 towards the library would be awarded on the provision that the village provide a site and authorize annual support from a tax provision of at least 10% of the grant award.  However, WWI intervened and construction of the library building was delayed.
    Meanwhile, Mrs. Harvey had taken a course in Library Science and employed a specialist to catalog and accession the Harvey book collection which, consisted of approximately 2000 volumes.  Another Coterie Club member, Mrs. William (Caroline) J. Sellick offered a donation of $3000 for the library fund, her husband’s private library collection and a gift of $500 for the maintenance of the collection.
    When it was possible to resume plans for building the library, costs had risen.  Efforts of the first Library Board; Harry L. McNeil, President; Mrs. Clara Anderson Rennie, Secretary; Mrs. Caroline Corey Sellick, Treasurer; and Mrs. Florence Harvey and Mrs. Harold D. Spicer; secured another $4500 from the Village Council.   A meeting of the Village Council on August 26th, 1918, awarded the construction contract to John. W. O’Connor of Kalamazoo for the sum of $11, 560.
    Mrs. Clara Anderson Rennie served as the first Librarian for Paw Paw Public Library, from June 26th, 1920 to April 1st, 1926.  Another Coterie Club member, Miss Rena Van Fossen would serve as the second Librarian for 32 years, from 1926 to her death in 1958.  
    Throughout the more than 100 years of Coterie Club history, more 698 women of Paw Paw have been members.  Coterie Club members have continued to be involved in library affairs, volunteering at the library, serving on the library board, forming the Friends of the Library, lobbying for library improvements, and helping to spearhead efforts for new library facilities.
    Paw Paw District Library outgrew the space limitations of the original Carnegie building and moved to temporary quarters while raising funds for a new library building.  In 1991, a Coterie Club member, Ethel Dillion led the effort to create the Carnegie Community Center and to secure a listing for the building on the National Register of Historic Places.  
    By the 1960’s interest in membership in women’s clubs began to decline.  Women had more opportunities to socialize, members were aging and unable to recruit new members and more and more women were entering the workforce. The Coterie Club disbanded in 2007. Its last President was Sophie Dickmann. In 2012, Paw Paw District Library opened in its new 16, 432 sq. ft. LED certified building.  The Coterie Club donated the funds to create the Local History Room.

(Information for this article came from Free to All: Carnegie Libraries & American Culture 1890-1920 by Abigail A. VanSlyck; Remember the Ladies by Angela P. Dodson; “Founding Mothers: the Contribution of Women’s Organizations to Public Library Development in the United States” by Paula D. Watson and articles from the files of Paw Paw District Library Local History Room. Martha Deming Maytnier, Local History Librarian, Paw Paw District Library)

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