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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

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Mabel Balyeat

Mabel Balyeat

GRHC - March 10th, 2010

Glance at the Past celebrates Women's History Month. Today, we meet groundbreaking librarian Mabel Balyeat.



Early in the twentieth century, most of Kent County had no library service. The only books generally available to rural schoolchildren were owned and loaned by their teachers. Beginning in 1927 and led by Mabel Balyeat and the Federation of Women's Clubs, area women had "book showers" in an effort to create a county-wide library system. Eventually, the women's clubs were joined by the Kent County Parent-Teachers Council and formed the Kent County Library Association, one of only three such systems in the nation.

Unfortunately, the United States was plunged into economic depression just as the association was organized and funds were short. In 1934, however, Balyeat learned of a New Deal program funding recreational activities. She convinced authorities of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration that reading was in fact recreational and secured sufficient help to hire a supervisor and seven librarians. After spearheading a program to secure more books from area individuals and organizations, including the Grand Rapids Public Library, Balyeat's first library consisted of a handful of books displayed on tables made of boards and sawhorses. A library card could be had in trade for eggs. By 1935, the library association had a collection of 2,500 books and operated 19 library stations in schools, grocery stores, and gasoline stations throughout the county.

Balyeat saw her dream of a unified county system realized in 1936 when the Kent County Board of Supervisors officially established the Kent County Library and appointed her to its five-person board of directors. Elected president, she continued to serve until 1946. Mabel Balyeat lived to be 102, and before her death in 1985 she saw the opening of a new central headquarters in 1971 for what is now the Kent District Library--more familiarly, KDL.

Full Details

TitleMabel Balyeat
KeywordsGlance at the Past, library, KDL, Kent, Mabel Balyeat, radio, WYCE, Grand Rapids, Historical Commission
Pubdate StringMarch 10th, 2010

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