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.