Closing the book on Detroit: Devastating closures proposed for the Detroit Public Library system

The Detroit Public Library is contemplating closing as many as 18 of its 23 branches due to budget shortfalls.

You’ve likely heard the statistic that Detroit’s functional illiteracy rate is nearly fifty percent, but it bears repeating. At the store where I worked last year, I got used to politely, patiently pointing out every last example of a product because a customer couldn’t read the package or the price. These customers could not distinguish between different varieties of a product because they couldn’t read the information on the box. Sometimes, they could not even find the thing they were looking for because so many toiletries are just liquid in text-covered bottles.

I had thought before about how an inability to read would make finding work hard, how it would make it pretty much impossible to vote, big things like that, but not until then had I considered the effect it can have on a person’s everyday ability to function. Several days ago when I hung out with a friend, she had just come from a cafe where the man in front of her was asking so many questions, she realized he probably couldn’t read the menu.

I wrote recently about the closure of the public library in relatively wealthy Troy, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I wrote about how libraries have been proven again and again to have an outstanding return on investment, returning to their communities manyfold the number of dollars invested in them. I wrote, too, about how once a library is closed, the more time passes, the more it will cost to reopen the library. A lot of money is tied up in a library in the form of physical infrastructure, books, and equipment, to say nothing of the years of human effort embodied there, and closure throws these things into the rubbish bin. As time passes, it becomes increasingly unlikely that the library branch can ever be opened again. 

As much as I believe Troy needs its library, when I think about this loss coming to Detroit, I can barely make sense of it. Every city needs libraries, but a city like Detroit…. A source of free information and entertainment, a solid set of bootstraps, even a place to go during the day, these things are air and water here. They are absolutely necessary. Removing this vital source of self-improvement and access to employment resources is a hard slap in the face for a city with an unemployment rate estimated anywhere from 30 to 50%. Yes, there will still be some libraries, but Detroit is also a vast city where about one in three people lack cars and the public transit system plainly sucks. A lot of the people who need libraries the most don’t necessarily have the mobility to regularly travel beyond their neighborhoods.

If these DPL branches end up crumbling, scrapped, wide open, and full of decaying books, they would not be the first DPL branches to do so. We don’t have to speculate, because DPL’s record on responsible disposition of its resources–finding new homes for books and on mothballing and/or selling the building–is right there in front of our eyes. I hope they will do better with this round of closures, although no closures would be better.

On a personal note, part of the big, shiny daydream that convinced me to pack up my life and move to this city was the thought that I wanted to work in a Detroit Public Library branch someday, doing my little part to put a dent in the city’s illiteracy rate. I have worked in a city public library with at-risk youth, and I know what that entails, and I love it.

I feel guilty even writing this down knowing that some of my favorite Detroiters and that many curious-about-Detroit people are going to read it, but the news of these cuts makes it a lot harder for me to imagine my future here. It’s not just the evaporation of so many jobs, but a significant blow to my line of work and to library workers in this region, period. When I first read the article, the image that popped into my head was of driving around my neighborhood and finding billboards reading I’D TURN BACK IF I WERE YOU. I could blow that sentiment up and talk about employment and opportunity networks and trying to stem brain drain, but you know what? The biggest loss here isn’t my silly white hipster self being more likely to move away or to keep working in low-wage retail after getting my degree. The big loss here is for those Detroiters who don’t have any other place to go or to take their kids. 

And hey: Closing libraries serves, in its way, to reinforce the gap between educated me and the most desperate people in my city. Rather than being able to use my knowledge and skills to help them acquire knowledge and skills, I am that much more likely to take my education elsewhere. I am more likely to be gone, and they’re more likely to be stuck. 

To all actors in the Detroit Public Library budget situation, whether you feel complicit in creating the current crisis or not, please get it together and do everything you can to fix this. You know this is real, and that it is a decision not easily taken back. This city goes daily without many of the bare minimum services and dignities needed for a municipality to function, but that doesn’t mean we should add this one to the list. In fact, we need our libraries precisely because we have virtually nothing else. Please, stop as many of these library closures as you can. Don’t cut Detroit’s bootstraps.

Published in: on April 17, 2011 at 1:27 am  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. There’s another thing the money raised to erect a Robocop statue could have gone towards instead… 😦

  2. Okay, that’s a simplistic reaction — there’s no direct correlation between the drive to raise money for an ironic statue and the gutting of the library system or that if hipsters didn’t have an 80s sci fi robot statue to fund, they’d have been out raising funds to keep those 18 libraries functioning, but it reminds me of the ongoing story of Misplaced Passions, Misplaced Priorities I see happening in other Midwestern cities — a strong, tunnel-vision devotion to one issue at cost of ignoring something that affects the infrastructure. And yet we do see organized efforts throwing all their weight to, for example, save one 1970s building while entire neighborhoods lose trash service or police protection or public schools or places to buy food.

    I’m sorry that this is going on, but am glad there are people like you who can bring it to light. It’s easy to see this as a “Detroit problem,” but I think it could catch on, unfortunately.

  3. While I agree with the sentiments of your post, consider for just another moment. Buildings are just one part of what makes public libraries important. The Detroit Public Library system was built to serve a city of almost 2 million people. Detroit isn’t that big anymore. These fewer residents can’t afford to support the infrastructure built to serve a much larger population. But those same people still deserve excellent library service. One solution, fewer locations. Fewer service points but more service. What’s disappointing to me about the news about DPL is number of individuals who serve the citizens of Detroit who are going to be laid off. The people who answer questions, the people who select the materials for the shelves and the people who keep the restrooms clean are the people who are being let go. Those services, in my opinion, are what makes DPL vital to the City, not the number of branches. I think demanding quality library services should be the main rallying cry for library supporters. Thanks for listening.

  4. Thanks so much for writing this! So devastating to hear after the news about Troy and especially about Gary.

    My first time on a city bus in Detroit (up Woodward), a man sat near me who’d just visited a clinic, and asked me to read him the information on his prescription bottle. Now I can’t recall if he had something wrong with his eyes at that moment or if he couldn’t read it at all…Your anecdotes about functional illiteracy are distressing. I so hope these closures can be avoided.

  5. “Buildings are just one part of what makes public libraries important. The Detroit Public Library system was built to serve a city of almost 2 million people. Detroit isn’t that big anymore.”
    totally agree

  6. I just put up a blog about this which is why I read yours. Apparently it’s much more widespread than Detroit and even the US.

  7. @wasabipea the robo cop reference was valid 🙂

    The decline in the library system ec is one which shoud sadden us all. TH elost of acilities and education are not to be tkane lightly.

    The knck on effect of the bankers behaviour continures to resonate.

    • Well I agree in so far as teh cut back as just painfull. Reduced services with out reduced tax’s is a super pain.

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