Libraries like Detroit’s need our support now, more than ever

As Detroit Public Library gradually opens branches for the first time since March 2020, it’s important that we support them

click to enlarge The grand reading room in the Detroit Public Library Main branch. - Shutterstock
The grand reading room in the Detroit Public Library Main branch.

Libraries, vital pillars in our community, are increasingly under attack. That’s why as Detroit Public Library gradually opens branches for the first time since March 2020, it’s important that we support them now more than ever.

Challenges are nothing new to libraries, but now they face protests, an explosion of book bans, staffing shortages, and increasing fiscal challenges stemming from the pandemic. In Jamestown Township and Ionia County, Michigan, voters last week even rejected millages that would support libraries, with the Ionia proposal failing by just 36 votes. Jamestown residents have launched a GoFund me drive to keep the doors open.

For all of my life, libraries have been my refuge. An only child, I spent many days of my childhood at the Bela Hubbard branch library, a half-mile from my northwest Detroit home, checking out stacks of books. No charge. As an elementary school student, I devoured everything by Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Laura Ingalls Wilder while my mom discovered Pearl S. Buck.

Thanks to my uncle, I had access to more inventory three miles away at Sherwood Forest branch. A voracious reader of everything from engineering books to Encyclopedia Britannica, Uncle Val was always game to walk a few blocks to indulge my passions. I found joy between the stacks of northwest Detroit libraries, but nothing compared to the weekends when my mother would drive us to the stately Italian Renaissance-styled downtown branch, one of the most beautiful buildings in Detroit. Home to one of the largest library collections in the U.S., it housed an endless supply of periodicals. Our trips to Woodward were not just about books, they ignited our love for the performing arts. Mom couldn’t afford to frequently patronize the performing arts so DPL’s free global music and dance events stood in the gap, exposing me to a vast world outside of Detroit.

Today, the library remains a great equalizer, where race, gender, or socioeconomics are irrelevant. I’ve grieved for the welcoming space during the two years the library has been closed. Although Sherwood Forest opened last month, library officials have said the Hubbard branch will remain shut until March. Thankfully, digital books and virtual events have been plentiful during the pandemic.

I’ve recently gone back in person to the library, a place of solace amid the chaos, anxiety, and isolation. In recent years, I’ve used the facility to write, greet old friends, research, study for tests, connect to WiFi, use the photocopiers, and organize and attend community events.

The library needs more of our community to return, to check out books, in person or via app. Our support matters! Share those books with a friend — or eight — by starting a book club. DPL will provide the books and the discussion questions. Hunting for a job, or brushing up on personal or professional skills? Use the library’s career resources or borrow a laptop, free with a library card. Have down time? Show up for the array of performing arts events.

Don’t forget to give, through donations of books and cash. Funding for DPL operations is primarily generated through a tax of 4.63 mills, about $230 on a home with a taxable value of $50,000, but library officials say too much of that funding has been diverted to the Downtown Development Authority. Money has always been a challenge for public libraries, and helping stretch the budget bolsters the community as a whole. In 2011, library closures dealt a blow to Detroit communities. Of course, the funding needs support through our votes. In 2014, Detroit voters renewed for 10 years the library’s operating millage but turnout for elections statewide has been low.

Lastly, be grateful for and gracious toward librarians, who wear multiple hats as educator/social worker/customer service reps/child care provider.

These simple steps won't eliminate the crises libraries face, but they will help alleviate matters.

Monica Williams is a Detroit resident.

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