Detroit libraries: path to extinction

City of Detroit

After recommending a radical downsizing of it 23 neighborhood branches, Detroit Public Library officials have backed away from the plan. The delay, however, painfully prolongs the unavoidable. The system has too much waste and mismanagement and too few readers to justify doing nothing.

Detroit’s neighborhood libraries are not immune to declining and shifting populations of people. A once proud, predominantly middle-class city has morphed into one that is socially challenged. Libraries lose their importance in a city with an illiterate or functional illiteracy rate close to 50 percent. The city is also home to one of the highest dropout rates in the nation; one of the lowest high school grade point averages and students who graduate with less than an 8th grade reading ability. Trying to make libraries relevant to people who no longer care that they exist is a noble but futile exercise.

Layoffs have already forced the temporary closing of some branches on some days. Older, shabby and seldom used branches are also vulnerable. Six branches — the Chase, Chandler Park, Lincoln, the Mark Twain Annex, Monteith and Richard – are slated for permanent closure.

If city libraries were run like a business, the panic button would have been pushed many years ago. Declining property tax collections means the dedicated 4.63 mills it receives from a shrinking pool is projected to drop precipitously through 2015. The system’s rainy day fund has been washed out by an $11 million revenue shortfall. The library may have to repay nearly $9.2 million in property tax revenues in overpayments from the city of Detroit.

Allegations of nepotism, cronyism and gross mismanagement create a worsening imperative. An investigation is underway into whether library staff violated rules in granting several contracts, including $2.6 million in renovations at the Main Library’s South Wing.

The library recently expended $200,000 in taxpayer money on a $20-million fundraising campaign that raised less than $100.

Libraries are only important to the cultural, intellectual and recreational needs if they are useful places of information and meet the needs of the people they serve. Detroit is not the only city to experience a huge transition from the conventional library into the era where quick access to knowledge is a keystroke away. As digital information and expanded use of popular online resources like Yahoo, Google and Bing search engines become popular, library visits declines, especially among young people.

Library officials must consider smaller, more cost-efficient buildings and alternative services. Locating library branches in underutilized public school buildings seems like an efficient multi-use concept. It would also be another way to connect the community to its schools year-round.

Edward Thomas, the president of the library commission is solidly on record exempting the Main Library on Woodward from major cuts or closure. He should have no problem getting support for this invaluable regional resource that houses extensive collections on labor, foreign language, rare books and the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African-Americans in music and the performing arts. It is home to one of the largest map collections among U.S. public libraries; the only complete file of U.S. patents in a Michigan public library and is a Regional Depository for U.S. Government publications.

The popular Burton Historical Library Collection on the history of Detroit and the Northwest Territory is incomparable. And most information requests received for these collections, as well as the National Automotive History Department, come from outside the system.

The Detroit Institute of Arts was transferred to private concern. The Detroit Zoo was recently regionalized. It makes sense then that the Main Library be placed under a Regional Library Authority, with a representative library commission to assure financial accountability.

In regards to neighborhood libraries, we may be turning the last page of the final chapter on them. They are going the way of the dinosaur. Any reluctance by library officials to curb their deterioration will hasten the entire library system’s rapid slide into extinction.

1 thought on “Detroit libraries: path to extinction

  1. Your column today makes me very sad though I have to say that even when I lived in Detroit, I also belonged to the Grosse Pointe Library system because the city system just never had current books. Your point about the value of its collections is a valid one and I hope that measures are taken to preserve them. However, library systems all over the country are now changing because the “e readers” have opened additional channels for readers that are also less expensive.

    The library system in my community offers Overdrive, which allows me to download books (for free) to my iPhone, iPad or computer. While I have a Kindle, you don’t need one to access Amazon’s millions of titles. There are Kindle apps for most smart phones, tablets and again, the computer. And hundreds of thousands of books are free. The same goes for iBooks and Barnes and Noble.

    Personally, I am giving away nearly all of the books in my personal library at home because I really don’t need the hassle of dusting or even packing them if I choose to move. If I really want to read a hard cover book, and sometimes I do, the library has lots from which I can choose.

    The public library has an important role to play in any community and your suggestion that they consider using schools, or even community centers, is worthy of consideration. Even more importantly, the Detroit system needs to look at the strategies that other communities are using to not only survive, but to thrive.

    But at the end of the day, it might be more cost efficient to give a Kindle or other “eReader” to those who really want them. After all, what’s important is the knowledge that books offer, not the buildings, and there are other more cost-effective and even exciting ways to provide that content.

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