Blogbaby episode five: Lisa Bashert on the Public Library as Commons

[While I’m busy scrubbing poop from diapers and other articles of clothing, several friends have been kind enough to provide content for this site, through a program we’re calling Blogbaby. Today’s contribution comes from my friend, local sustainability advocate Lisa Bashert.]

I was in the library today. In fact, I was in the library three times today. Generally, I go to the library a lot — rarely does a week go by when I don’t visit. Today, I stopped in to pick up a MelCat book. (If our library doesn’t have the book I want, there’s a program called Inter-Library Loan — the online version is MelCat — and that means I can borrow materials from, say, the Benzonia Library, or the Marquette Library.) I walked to the cafe next door and had lunch.

Then I realized that I had forgotten to pick up the next selection for the upcoming “Books & Brews” book club that our downtown library hosts at the Corner Brewery. Before biking home, I stopped in again and picked up The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers. While there, Jerome (I know all of my librarians by name) informed me that my library card is about to expire.

I was aghast. I didn’t have my ID with me, so I’ll have to stop in again next week to renew my card.

Later still, I realized that I hadn’t dropped off the quarter page handbills I’d made to publicize the Sustainability Film Series, which will move to the downtown Ypsilanti District Library on the second Friday of every month beginning in January. I circled back around and dropped them off.

While I was visiting the library numerous times today, I took a good look around and choked up a little. You see, I love my walkable, sustainable, public, downtown, personal, activist, beautiful library. I saw moms with small herds of kids. I saw every computer occupied. I saw super cheap used books for sale near the checkout counter. I saw the beautiful historic stenciling that’s been restored encircling the lobby ceiling. I saw familiar friendly faces at the counter that have answered so many questions for me. I saw people from every kind of income bracket and ethnic group. I saw “the commons” in action.

Our library is a facet of the public commons that Mark mentioned awhile back in relation to an Occupy Ypsi gathering that took place on December 10. Mark linked the Wikipedia article on the concept of the public commons (an article that does not even mention the public library), defined as “resources owned in common or shared between and among community populations.” I was so glad that the commons was a topic discussed at Occupy Ypsilanti.

I was feeling particularly raw and particularly sad because, today, the Monteith Branch (and three other branches) of the Detroit Public Library closed their doors for the last time. (The report that ran on Michigan Radio can be found here.) At the Monteith, like at the YDL, many people use the public library as their only access to a computer for personal work and school, for access to all the information available online. There are martial arts classes at the Monteith; it is a refuge and a safe haven for kids, a beautiful old gothic building from 1926. It has an active Friends of the Library group — even a Junior League chapter that has adopted the building and lovingly cared for its historic infrastructure. Many of the library patrons used terms like “devastating,” “dismal,” and said the Monteith is like the Alamo, the last thing standing in this impoverished east side neighborhood.

Library Commissioner Jonathan Kinloch was quoted as follows, “We cannot operate based upon maybes right now. The city of Detroit, and particularly the library’s finances, are flying off of a cliff. So we have to make sound business decisions.”

But I thought as I listened — the library is NOT a business. It’s a public trust held in common to be protected for future generations. The current plan is for the Monteith and the other three branches of the Detroit Public Library to be boarded up. What a slap in the face to the patrons and children who use that library.

One of the ways I’ve described Ypsilanti in the past is to say “it’s got an intact infrastructure.” It is a complete community, not a suburb or exurb, with two vital downtown districts that still include independent businesses like the shoe repair, a hardware store, resale shops, small clothing stores, medical clinics, hair salons, bakeries, and the Food Co-op. To me, the public library is the beating heart of a true community. May we keep it forever safe.

I know many of Mark’s readers will have a much more educated point of view on the importance of the commons. I hope they will share their thoughts.

Speaking of the downtown library, would I be correct in the assumption that the building that it’s housed in is owned by the city, and could, therefore, be viewed by an incoming Emergency Financial Manager as an asset for possible liquidation? And, if so, might it be prudent if we somehow transferred ownership of the building to an independent entity of some sort? Or, has that already been done? I feel as if I should know that, but I don’t… And the last thing that I’d want to see is an appointee of the Governor coming into Ypsi and selling out library out from under us.

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31 Comments

  1. Jules
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Beautifully expressed, Lisa.

  2. Heidi
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Hate to sound like debbie downer, but Keep an eye on Snyder’s proposed Personal Property Tax Elimination Plan…there may not be any public libraries left or if they are will have volunteers working them, instead of Master Degree Librarians..My library system will lose 680,000 out of it’s budget in the blink of eye if his proposal passes. Including I imagine, my job and a number of other librarians as well.
    Oh and keep an eye on Gingrich too, with this child labor repeal..he thinks children can work as library assistants. “Gingrich falsely asserts that poor children don’t have a work ethic except when it comes to illegal activity. His solution is to repeal child labor laws and put poor kids to work as library assistants or assistant janitors.”

  3. Posted December 24, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    I fear in our compartmentalized society, the public library will go the way of the public school.

  4. John Galt
    Posted December 24, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Libraries are for Communists. We need a Walmart.

  5. Posted December 26, 2011 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    I love Lisa. Thanks for this beautifully written essay :) (See you at the Books & Brew event, Lisa!)

  6. Posted December 26, 2011 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    I don’t know the answers to your questions, Mark. I think I’ll find out. I’ll invite my favorite librarians to comment: Joy, Ben, Greta, Jerome, Mary, Stacey, Kittie. I want to know more.

  7. Posted December 26, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    By the way, Heidi. My first job at age nine was in the public library that my grandmother founded for my tiny NJ town. I helped in the kids’ department, and worked up to checking out books. My aunt Elsie was the first librarian. During my last visit, I got to visit that building (the library itself moved to the school where I went to kindergarten). It’s now the historical society and there’s a plaque there commemorating my family and my dad’s navy service, etc…

  8. Liz DMG
    Posted December 26, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    Nicely put, Lisa.

    And, the downtown branch of the library is owned by the library. See info here: https://is.bsasoftware.com/bsa.is/AssessingServices/ServiceAssessingDetails.aspx?dp=11-11-39-102-007&i=1&sna=Michigan&snf=200&snt=300&appid=0&actSn=229&actSna=MICHIGAN+AVE&actDir=W&unit=421

  9. Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your note, Liz. I’m extremely happy to know that, whatever else might happen, at least our EFM won’t be able to sell our library out from under us.

  10. Jill Morey
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    Lisa,
    Thanks for your incredibly warm and personal account of what public libraries (especially YDL-Michigan Avenue) mean to you! Just to confirm….the Ypsilanti District Library does own the building located in downtown Ypsilanti. Established by law as a district library, YDL is separate from Ypsilanti City or Township and is governed by an autonomous, elected board. Like most public libraries, YDL is challenged to provide high level services given budget constraints. The loss of personal property taxes would be devastating.
    Jill Morey, YDL Director

  11. Heidi
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Gee Thanks Lisa…now that I know that 9 year olds can do my job, why should I even bother going back to work. I’ll just send my son in my place, they can pay him nothing and life will be grand. Maybe he’ll get a plaque saying what a wonderful job he does and how librarians don’t need to be paid anymore.

  12. Heidi
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Yeah…I’d like to see a 9 year old do any of this:

    Librarian #2″I’m a librarian. Librarians have one or two masters degrees or a PhD. People often assume I only have a high school diploma.”
    Archivist/Reference Librarian
    “I put you in touch with your lost relatives. I advise you on your rights as a renter. I teach you how to move the computer mouse.”
    I am an archivist and reference librarian in an urban public library. In my library, I am not solely defined by my roles as archivist and librarian. On any given day, I am your: social worker, career head-hunter, drug and alcohol counselor, marriage therapist, immigration lawyer, interpreter. I put you in touch with your lost relatives. I give you the proper forms to file for a new birth certificate. I advise you on your rights as a renter. I teach you how to move the computer mouse. I am your impromptu city historian. I dig through dusty boxes in order to find you a photograph of your great grandmother. I have found that my library fills what would be an incredible void in our community. I acknowledge that we are not a perfect organization; however, where every other bureaucracy in our city has told you “No,” we are the organization that says, “Yes. We can help you.”

  13. Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:19 pm | Permalink

    Jill,

    Thank you for your comment. Given the fact that, unless something unexpected happens soon at the State level, we’re likely to get an Emergency Financial Manager who will be looking to liquidate our assets, I’m happy to know that the YDL’s facilities aren’t owned by the City/Township. I don’t imagine, however, that’s any guarantee that either of our libraries will remain unchanged over the years to come. And, with that in mind, I have a few more questions for you. Here, in hopes that you return, they are…

    • Is the entire budget of the YDL addressed by the .38 millage that was passed in November, 2010, or are there other revenue streams that presently contribute toward operations?

    • How, in real dollars, are the falling property values in the City and Township impacting your budget? What do the future projections look like, and how are they likely to impact library offerings?

    • With tax revenues dropping across the nation, not only are more libraries closing, but some, from what I understand, are being pushed to explore “privatization.” I suspect that’s something that’s something that the American Library Association is fighting against. How, if at all, is the YDL involved in that fight?

    • I’ve heard that you have initiated both an annual fundraising campaign, as well as an endowment. How are those efforts going? What goals have you set, and how close are you to achieving them?

    • What, if you happen to know, were the circumstances around the closing of the four public libraries in Detroit? Were those buildings owned by the City of Detroit?

    Thanks again for taking the time,
    Mark

  14. Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    And, Heidi, I don’t want to speak for Lisa, but I’m pretty sure, when she said that she helped at a library as a kid, she wasn’t suggesting that children could do your job. I know that Gingrich and others have said as much, though, and I can certainly see how you would be sensitive to such comments, but I think there are probably others more deserving of your very justified ire.

  15. Heidi
    Posted December 27, 2011 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    I know and I apologize (my library passion took over), things are very touchy in the library world right now..and that comment Lisa made really hit home. You would be amazed at how many people think Librarians volunteer their time to be in the library with no pay or that Librarians just sit around and read books all day.
    If you really want to know what your Librarian does, shadow them for the day or a week, they probably won’t mind if you do. Libraries and Librarians have had to fill a void for more then just checking in and checking out books during this economy…and now we are faced with the reality of losing our jobs as well. Comment like I was 9 and worked in the library, don’t help our cause.

  16. Jill Morey
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Mark,
    Thanks for your interest in YDL. Good questions. The recent additional .38 operating millage was an attempt to replace funds lost due to the Headlee Rollback and to supplement the Library’s other operating millages voted many years ago. Local tax levies account for over 90% of YDL’s budget and have decreased dramatically in recent years due to plummeting home values. We have experienced an average of 10% decreased tax revenues and forecast similar losses in the forseeable future. Other revenue streams (fines and fees, uncertain state aid from the Library of Michigan, declining penal fines from the County) account for a small percentage of the library’s budget. YDL’s current fy budget is being balanced by the transfer of approximately $400,000 from the library’s fund balance. We continue to explore ways to provide quality service given reduced revenues. The Library has not pursued privatization and is not involved in ALA’s action on this front. Not surprisingly, YDL’s private fundraising efforts have intensified in the past two years. With the exception of a federal grant which we were not awarded, YDL’s 2011 fundraising goal was met with over $52,000 contributed by the incredibly hard-working Friends of YDL and over $30,000 received from an annual year-end campaign, gifts and memorial donations, and our first “Get Inspired” signature fund-raising event. We are grateful for our generous community! I have no information regarding the closing of the public libraries in Detroit.
    Jill Morey, YDL Director

  17. Anonymous Mike
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    While it looks as though the City would not be able to place the downtown library up for sale, I imagine it is possible that eventually one of the two libraries operated by the YDL could close. I imagine that would happen years from now, however, after years of cuts.

  18. Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    I’d like to know more about the circumstances surrounding the closure of the Detroit libraries, and what, if anything, we might be able to learn from it. And thank you for your comment, Jill. I can’t make sense of all the numbers at the moment, as I’ve got a million things going on around me, but I intend to spend some time thinking about them later this evening, once things have quieted down.

  19. kjc
    Posted December 28, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Heidi, are you as testy with library patrons as you are with Lisa? Cuz that was some bullshit.

  20. Posted January 2, 2012 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    Wow, I’m just sorry Heidi imagined that I was suggesting that a nine year old could do her job. My stint as a volunteer led to a life-long love of the library, as well as a deep and abiding respect for all that librarians do. My sister is a librarian, and I couldn’t LIVE, I don’t think, without my local YDL librarians.

    I have targeted all my charity dollars to local organizations only. The library has benefited from that impulse as I have donated probably well over $300 in book donations — maybe more. As I mull that over and compare with other donations made throughout this year, I’m relieved to realize that, in that case, the YDL is the highest recipient of my donations!

  21. EOS
    Posted January 2, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    $300 in used book donations is your most significant contribution to our local community? Am I misinterpreting what you just wrote? Are you employed?

  22. Glen S.
    Posted January 2, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    EOS,

    Lisa Bashert does more for this community in one week than most people ever dream of doing in a year.

    Of all things, why go negative on somebody who’s expressing her support for our local library?

    I suspect Heidi’s comments are the result of a misunderstanding.

    Yours just seems petty and mean.

  23. Posted January 2, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Even for EOS, that was pretty sad and unnecessary.

    I think s/he should comment on the masturbation post instead.

  24. Edward
    Posted January 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    But EOS has given so much more, Glen. As he’s mentioned here, he often ministers to the poor black men and women of Ypsilanti, giving them the benefit of his vast knowledge. I suspect the dollar value is incalculable.

  25. Posted January 2, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    LOL! I am employed half-time at the Ypsi Food Coop. It’s true, MOST of my contributions are in time & sweat equity. Guess I don’t know how the other half lives — that amount (as one of 8 or 9 organizations that we support) seems high to me!

    I’m grateful for your questions, Mark, and Jill’s detailed answers. Here’s a link with more about what is happening in Detroit with the library closures:
    http://voiceofdetroit.net/2011/12/27/fight-to-save-our-libraries-keep-all-the-libraries-open/

  26. EOS
    Posted January 2, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    So what does everyone else think? Is $300 in charitable donations a significant amount? Is it more than most other people contribute? Do many progressives give a certain percentage of their income to local charities? What local charities, other than Ozone House, are worthy causes?

  27. kjc
    Posted January 2, 2012 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    EOS, she said that it was her highest single amount. Not the only donation. In any case, I don’t sit around judging people’s personal finances. Or their reading comprehension (lucky for you).

    Dude, so fucking rude!

  28. Posted January 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    EOS, can you be any more rude?

    Seriously?

  29. Posted January 2, 2012 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

    Get over to that masturbation thread and get to commenting.

  30. Posted January 2, 2012 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the link, Lisa. I appreciate it… If I read the story correctly, the decision to close the four libraries (Mark Twain, Monteith and Lincoln on the East Side, and Richard on the West Side) was that of the Detroit Public Library Commission. (They voted on November 16 to close the four branches.) According to this website, the Detroit Public Library Commission is….

    an independent, municipal corporation governed by a seven-member Detroit Library Commission, whose members are appointed by the Detroit Public Schools Board of Education. The seventh member, the current president of the Board of Education is an ex-officio member.

    Does that mean the libraries are owned by the Detroit School Board, and it’s their EFM that’s calling for their closure?

    Also, that article says that protests are scheduled for January 3.

  31. Meta
    Posted September 11, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    From Metafilter:

    Hearing complaints that the Fairfax County Public Library was throwing away tons of books, County Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) decided to peer into a Dumpster. Twice, she found stacks and stacks of high-quality books, bought by the taxpayers, piled in the trash. The second time, she filled a box. The discarded books have opened a broader discussion about the library’s long-term plan, which would eliminate the requirement for fully trained librarians, reduce branch staff and cut the amount of time children’s librarians spend helping families inside their libraries.

    Read more:
    http://www.metafilter.com/131792/Dumpsters-Full-of-Books

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  1. […] Have we done everything that we can to prepare?By Mark | March 3, 2012A little while ago, in an exchange with Jill Morey, the director of the Ypsilanti District Library, the subject came up of what would likely happen to the downtown library building, should an […]

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