Read All About It

Detroit Public Library looks back at milestones, and forward into the digital age


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Photographs by Martin Vecchio

The Main Library of the Detroit Public Library (DPL) on Woodward Avenue is one of the city’s most beautiful buildings. 

Although the library’s humble beginnings date 150 years, the current building was constructed in 1921. Its exterior is classic Italian Renaissance style in gleaming white marble. It faces across Woodward the equally handsome Beaux Arts style Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), forming the heart of Detroit’s cultural center. 

Both of the buildings represent Detroit’s golden era, when civic leaders spared no expense building institutions befitting a leading American city. Then, and now, nothing testified to prosperity and class more than grand art museums and public libraries. 

Of course, recent decades have not been kind to Detroit. It took the much-heralded “grand bargain” last year — the raising of $800 million from foundations, private donors, and state coffers — to save the DIA from death via auction. 

Jo Anne Mondowney, DPL’s executive director, loves to borrow the “grand bargain” phrase when speaking of the library. “I say to people, ‘We are a great bargain.’ I like to tell them, ‘We have something to offend everybody,’ ” she jokes. 

That is her way of bragging about DPL’s broad reach. With its 21 branches, it contains 7.2 million books and other materials. Collection-wise, it ranks fourth in the nation, offering more than libraries in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. 

Like the DIA, the DPL relies largely on public funding. Key since 1942 has been the Detroit Public Library Friends Foundation, a stalwart supporter of the library. But Mondowney was especially thankful for the renewal in 2014 by Detroit citizens of the library’s millage. She calls it a “pre-birthday gift.”

Indeed. 

This year, DPL marks its 150th year. That alone is worth celebrating, but the institution is also heralding other milestones this year. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a bigger year for the state’s largest municipal library system. There’s the 150th anniversary of its founding, the 100th anniversary of the Burton Collection, the “Bookmobile” turns 75, the Junior Great Books program reaches 50, and more — including new digitization programs and the opening of the Coleman A. Young Mayoral Papers in May. 

 

Turning the Big 1-5-0

As dutifully detailed in The City of Detroit Michigan, 1701 – 1922, “the (Michigan) state constitution adopted in 1835 contained a provision that all fines and penalties collected in criminal cases should be devoted to the establishment and maintenance of public libraries.” 

That sounded great, but it didn’t bring in much money. The first payment to Detroit was just $63.14. 

After a lot of organizing, scrutinizing, and other activity too laborious to detail here, more funding via such collections eventually was found, and on March 25, 1865, the first Detroit Public Library opened in a room on the first floor of the now-demolished “old capitol building” in Detroit. The Board of Education was the governing body of the library at the time and would be for decades.

According to historicdetroit.org, the Detroit Free Press said that opening this “free library … will take many of our citizens by surprise. … Let us mark the event of its inauguration by suitable demonstrations.” 

The library contained 8,864 volumes at the time. Two years later, a second room on the second floor was dedicated to the library. 

Naturally, it didn’t take long before more space was needed. The city had grown from just under 50,000 residents in 1865 to nearly 80,000 by 1870. 

In 1871, an addition on the old capital building library opened to the public. But that wasn’t enough. That same year, the city council “agreed to grant the old city hall to library purposes,” The City of Detroit reports. Nice plan, but there was a catch: It would cost more money to retrofit the old building than to just build a new one “more suitable in design and capacity” for a major library. The next year, the city offered a 50-year lease on a site in Center Park for a new library building.     

After more controversy, opposition, legal action, and whatnot, the Board of Education in February 1875 agreed to contract David Knapp to build a new library for the sum of $159,000. But soon came the expected acrimony, controversy, charges of “extravagance,” and all kinds of opposition. (Sound familiar?) 

Eventually, an agreement was made that the building could be erected, but stripped of unnecessary ornamental features (“ … the last thing to go was the very much regretted and quite handsome stone entrance steps,” The City of Detroit editors lamented).

The building, at the corner of Farmer Street and Gratiot Avenue (and also now demolished), was dedicated Jan. 22, 1877. 

There were 33,604 volumes by then; it grew to 500,000 by 1921. Several additions were made through 1896 and by 1916, the city boasted 13 branches, along with “four score library stations, located at manufacturing establishments, fire engine houses, school buildings, hospitals, and other accessible places.” 

 

More Room to Grow

But as early as 1901 came a familiar refrain: A much bigger, newer, and modern library building was required. By this time, Clarence Burton had amassed his own huge private library and had in 1914 decided to give it to the public library (see below). 

The quest was on to build the present-day library on Woodward Avenue. Once again, there were all kinds of hoops to jump through before everyone agreed, bonds were passed, and the site chosen. By this time, it was 1907, and the site cost $185,000.

New York architect Cass Gilbert (designer of the U.S. Supreme Court Building) was selected for the big project. The cornerstone was placed Nov. 1, 1917, and “in March, 1921, after seemingly interminable delays, the building was opened to the public,” The City of Detroit reports. The price tag was $2,500,000.

Burton and his fellow editors of The City of Detroit remarked early in the quest for this newest and current library that other cities by then had built beautiful, “commodious,” and modern libraries. Thus, Detroit needed to build such a library that “should be a center for artistic activities of the city, a research institution for people of all classes and vocations, where the spirit of civic growth and prosperity could be nurtured, and a manifestation of the intellectual development of the community.”

Nearly 85 years later and 150 years after the original library took shape, similar words and civic spirit come from Mondowney. 

“Libraries have become places for civic engagement, a place of learning,” she says. “Many cities are known for their libraries. If you want to become the next comeback city, you must have a first-class, 21st century library.”

She raises the hope that sometime soon, DPL will be able to begin building four “new iconic, 21st century library branches. So as the city heads out of bankruptcy and into its next renaissance, we’re going with them.”

 

Burton’s Bounty 

It would be difficult to find a gift to any public library in the United States equal to the Burton Historical Collection. Born in 1853, Clarence Monroe Burton began collecting all kinds of historic artifacts in 1874, when he was in his early 20s.

Eventually the owner of the Burton Abstract and Title Company, and the official Detroit city “historiographer,” Burton spent the next 40 years not only collecting books, but also scrounging all over town, Michigan, and beyond finding papers and other items, artifacts, and documents that, in those times, most people threw away. 

When he learned of a death, he was soon at survivors’ doorsteps. He searched chicken coops, outbuildings, attics, barns, you name it. 

He moved to a huge house, now demolished, on Brainard Street in Detroit, and put three additions onto it to hold his burgeoning collection. They soon were all packed. (Today, Mondowney jokes, “we would call him a hoarder.”) By the early 1900s, his collection was already renowned. 

In 1914, Burton decided to donate his collection and his Brainard Street home to the Detroit Public Library. What has since been known as the Burton Historical Collection opened to the public in 1915. 

By that time, his collection had grown to include 30,000 books, 40,000 pamphlets, 500,000 unpublished documents, 1,200 maps, 4,000 prints, and hundreds of newspaper clippings. 

Credited at the time for saving “the memory of Detroit,” Burton, who died in 1932, kept adding to the collection, as have others since. Today, BHC offers 500,000 books, 250,000 images, 4,000 manuscript collections, and about 1,000 newspaper titles. 

Originally centered on the history of Detroit, of Michigan, and of the Northwest Territory, “Burton also collected Americana,” says Mark Bowden, BHC coordinator for special collections. “There are materials on virtually every aspect of early American history, such as the Salem witch trials, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the California Gold Rush, slavery, and the Civil War.” This growth is partly due to Burton establishing an endowment. 

DPL is further distinguished by a diverse group of special collections, including the E. Azalia Hackley Collection of African Americans in the Performing Arts; the National Automotive History Collection; the Ernie Harwell Sports Collection; the Mayoral Collections; and the Rare Book Collection. 

 

Putting the Library on Wheels

It’s also the 75th anniversary of the DPL’s Library on Wheels (LOW, or Bookmobile) Program. It launched in 1940 with a Chevrolet cab and chassis and body built by Fruehauf Trailer Company. The Bookmobile now services schools and seniors via regular visits to senior citizen and drop-in centers, and other locations frequented by seniors and retired people. 

Materials include magazines, audiocassettes, large print books, music, and books in foreign languages. Staff members answer questions or obtain books through interlibrary loan. They even bring books to the doors of those who are physically unable to make it to the vehicle.

 

Saturday Sessions

This is also the 50th anniversary of the Junior Great Books program — another of the uncounted ways the Friends Foundation has supported DPL. 

Those who sign up for the program come to the Main Library for six Saturdays for discussion on selected readings. Adult facilitators are trained by the Great Books foundation. The mission for this program is to improve reading comprehension — and to enhance the general enjoyment of learning through reading all kinds of books. 

 

‘The Mayor’s’ Collection

The formal opening to the public of the Coleman A. Young Mayoral Papers happens in May, the most recent addition to a collection that contains the records of every Detroit mayor, other than Mayor Jerome Cavanagh — whose papers are at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. (Papers from Mayors Kwame Kilpatrick and Dave Bing will be digitized.)

At 342 boxes, the Young papers are the library’s largest such collection. It took nearly two years to process it. 

“Materials from his first couple of terms are especially interesting,” says Bowden, who led the processing. “These were from 1974 to 1980 or so, when he was dealing with trying to reform the police department, get the city back on solid economic footing, dealing with the People Mover, the Millender Center,” and much more. 

Bowden says that the Young papers are important “not only for the history of Detroit, but it also opens up the history of one of the major figures in 20th century municipal history.”

Mondowney adds that “Mayor Coleman Young was one of the most formative mayors in the City of Detroit. To have his papers will allow the public to see how the city went down, came back, all of his predictions, his ideas. Years from now, if you want to know about the City of Detroit, you can see it here.”

 

The Digitization Project

Digitization is the name of the game in the 21st century, and nowhere is that more true than for libraries. With great excitement, DPL launched digitized offerings from its Special Collections last October. The project makes available to the public online more than 67,000 images.

“A library ‘visit’ is no longer simply a physical entry into a library,” says Patrice Merritt, who retired in December as The Detroit Public Library Friends Foundation executive director. “A visit is more often than not an electronic one. [Staff] have dramatically changed how they interact with customers.”

Admittedly, not unlike the early library boosters who pointed to other cities’ progress, Detroit is lagging behind on this most important incarnation of the public library. But “we’re in the game now and we recognize how important that is,” Mondowney says. “Today, you must do this to stay viable.”


For more information, go to detroitpubliclibrary.org, or call 313-481-1300.

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