Last night, I attended a meeting in my community about the fate of the Mark Twain Branch Library, the Detroit Public Library branch that served my area on the East Side until the branch closed in 1997. At the time of the closure, residents were told that the library needed a new roof and that it would reopen in two years. Currently, the Mark Twain Branch is famous on the Internet as an abandoned building still containing books and fixtures. After beating around the bush for quite some time, DPL representatives at this meeting stated (in response to an audience member’s direct question) that they intend to demolish the building as soon as they get the requisite permits and take care of matters with utility companies.
Other things I learned at the meeting: The Detroit Public Library targeted this community with mailers to promote a past library millage, which then passed, with the statement that the Mark Twain Branch would be renovated and reopened. There have been a number of failed efforts to make this renovation happen. DPL got a report saying that it would cost $6.9 million to renovate the library. The Detroit Catholic Pastoral Alliance will be building a new commercial building nearby on Gratiot and they would like DPL as a tenant. DPL may or may not keep operating the current Mark Twain Annex that serves the area currently in what was supposed to be a temporary capacity.
DPL’s maintenance crew has to board up the Mark Twain Branch two to three times a week and have dealt with some fairly blatant thieves at the site, but for some reason DPL still has equipment in the building. A lot of my neighbors seemed to want to keep the building, and in general everyone seemed to want clearer communication in the future. Karen Nagher from Preservation Wayne expressed concern as to the quality of demolition DPL will get for the $200,000 they are saying it will cost to tear down that large, solid building. The head of maintenance for DPL sidestepped questions from area residents about whether they would be recycling the materials from the building, to an extent that a simple “We’re not recycling anything” would have been more respectful and a time-saver. DPL says there is asbestos in the building, and I hope the immediate neighbors who asked them questions about it at tonight’s meeting will keep an eye out for dust when that $200,000 demolition goes down.
Another surprise that came out at tonight’s meeting was the fact that the Detroit Public Library has not considered the sale of the Mark Twain Library. This, too, came out in response to an audience member’s question. The ensuing rhetoric centered around the entirely theoretical challenge of finding an appropriate purchaser able to rehab the building for a suitable use. While vetting any potential buyer would be important, it stuck me as a funny for DPL Commissioners to fret about an owner misusing the site when DPL has misused the building so completely.
It is frustrating that years of mismanagement let a damaged roof turn into a teardown. At numerous points along the way, the current serious nuisance situation could have been avoided at much less cost. But this is where we are now: The teardown seems inevitable. Okay, the building is almost gone, that’s where we’re at.
My biggest takeaway from the meeting was that no Detroit Public Library representative present mentioned any sort of plan to prevent this from happening in the future. DPL has announced that instead of the erroneously-calculated closure of as many as 18 library branches, they will instead close around six branches this year. DPL representatives at the meeting were clear that closures will happen. Thus, DPL needs to communicate with communities individually and with Detroit as a whole what their plans are for responsible disposition of the properties or very serious mothballing (i.e. not another Mark Twain Branch). They also need to make a plan for the books and equipment that they will not move to other branches, and then they need to follow through.
DPL Executive Director Jo Anne Mondowney responded to a neighbor’s question about the left-behind books by stating that nobody could use the books that were left in the Mark Twain Branch. With all due respect, that’s simply not true. An audience member promptly responded out loud that she would have used some of the books. Thinking in practical terms, there are a bevy of organizations, local and national, which are glad to take books before they get covered in plaster dust, and this was much more than a handful of books left behind. If it’s too much work to contact a few separate organizations, wonderfully green Better World Books will pay shipping for book donations and then resell or recycle the books themselves. One large library where I worked in the past did a great deal of deaccessioning due to a lack of offsite storage, and Better World even provided numerous boxes for us to ship the books in for free on a regular basis. All we had to do was put the books into the boxes and tape on shipping labels. Heck, just a well-flyered and -bannered free book giveaway in the neighborhood would be better than another locking-up of so many books in a defunct building–this is Detroit and people are hungry for knowledge. In a city where the mismanagement of public dollars and moreover the perception thereof are a huge problem, wasting resources to this serious a degree and in such a visually arresting manner is not a PR slip that DPL should repeat.
One Mark Twain Branch has been a real loss. We don’t need six more. What has happened with the Mark Twain Branch has been a shame, but the Detroit Public Library can commit to taking a course of action with its coming closures that prevents this from happening again. Here’s hoping.
Edited to add: A friend called me from DPL’s Richard Branch shortly after it closed, telling me that he saw people throwing books into dumpsters. He was upset. I haven’t been by to look in the windows and confirm, and that is all I know about it. I was really glad when DPL chose to reopen several branches it initially sought to close, half time. Still, if my friend’s statement is true, that is not how you learn from mistakes like those at the original Mark Twain Branch.