I found a treasure a few weeks ago, on the shelves of used books at Source Booksellers on Cass Avenue. It's a sturdy, like-new, hardcover copy of Parnassus on Main Street by Frank B. Woodford ("a former newspaperman") -- a 487-page history of the Detroit Public Library, with two-tone illustrations and think creamy pages, published at the library's centennial in 1965. While this might sound like so many cobwebs to you, the book turns out to be an extraordinary testament to literature for literature's sake, and the public good. It carries the whiff of paternalism while nonetheless standing as an exultation for those who create, sustain, and adapt free libraries where every person is welcome.
In that spirit, I'm excited to share with you some of the most interesting stories to emerge from this book in an occasional series here on Isak. Let me begin by quoting one of the old bookplates once pasted into the cover of each book in the city's public library:
This book is the property of the people of Detroit, and must be taken special care of, and not allowed to lie around where injury may happen to it.
For damage done to the books of the Library the following fines will be imposed: For each grease spot, 5 cents; for each ink spot, 5 cents; for each leaf torn, 10 cents; for each leaf turned down, 5 cents; for writing in a book, from 5 to 10 or more cents; and for other damages, including soiling the book or injuring the binding, proportionate fines up to the full value of the book, where seriously injured. For self-protection examine the book and report imperfections when drawing a volume from the Library.
While it began as a public reading room, opened at the behest of a state law requiring the city's board of education to do so, the Detroit Public Library is today the twentieth largest library system in the country, comprised of the Main library and twenty-three branches across the city. (This number is diminished: seven branches have closed over the decades.) The Main library was designed by the same guy who designed the United States Supreme Court; new wings were built in 1963, ahead of the centennial.
In the book's forward, Ralph R. Shaw details the radical underpinnings of the library idea. (Shaw was an innovative librarian and publisher, who founded Scarecrow Press in 1950. The American Library Association used to give out the Ralph R. Shaw Award for Library Literature. Read here about how he created the school for library science at the University of Hawaii.)
The concept of a public library was pioneered in Detroit which continues to provide leadership in its development as a people's university. ...
... The Detroit Public Library picked up the thread of history just as our nation was moving from the concept of libraries as storehouses of books -- considered as precious physical objects for the use of the few -- to the conception of books and libraries as people.
The ultimate magic of the American Public Library rests upon recognition of the fact that books are people. A book or a pamphlet, or a magazine article, or a film is really a person in recorded form. In this form, if we want to know what Matthew Arnold thought about predestination, we can ask him -- long gone though he is -- by consulting what he told us in Sohrab and Rustum. At another end of the scale, if we want to know how to line a blast furnace or how to grease a Stanley Steamer, we can, at our convenience and our will, consult the expert in these field through their writings. ...
The Detroit Public Library had its beginnings just as the industrial revolution was getting into full stride; when we had begun to think of using conveyers and lifting devices for handling materials instead of using man as a beast of burden. This freed man to use his mind instead of his back. But minds needed nurture if they were to be used effectively. So the concept of man as an intellectual being grew, and with it grew greater need for understanding and compassion and wisdom, for opportunities for continued intellectual growth for every man. Here the free public library provided a unique medium for supporting the growth of each literate human being. It provided opportunity for him to develop in any direction he chose, at his own pace. He was free to have intimate contact with all the people who could help to contribute to his aspirations and his achievement -- whether or not they lived in his town or in his time.
There is another facet of the concept of books as people speaking to people. It is the idea of librarians as people who recognize the need to bring the people of books and the people of the community together. It is this factor ... that has made the Detroit Public Library a great exemplar. The dream needs dreaming -- but it also needs doing.
In the early part of the century Mr. (Henry M.) Utley (head librarian) started the great work of carrying books to people by developing relationships with the schools that helped to enrich their curricula and produce a generation that knew books as part of their heritage. Mr. (Adam) Strohm, the great idealist and builder, carried the library's facilities out to the neighborhood. Mr. (Ralph A.) Ulveling went a long step farther in making the library a part of the fiber and conscience of community living, with the library accepting responsibility for participation in community affairs.
Keep reading (so to speak):
The great contribution of the Detroit Public Library in the current generation has not been single-shot spectaculars; nor has it been simply that the library has participated in community affairs ... Its contribution has been in the intellectual resources it has made a part of every man's way of life. Where other libraries were content to have readers' advisory service (if they had it at all) as a small and very special privilege for a few people at the main library, Detroit designed it into all of its branch outlets. Where most libraries have been content to hide their books under conventional classifications schemes which librarians understand but the public does not, Detroit has pioneered in reader-interest classification to organize books in a system which would encourage people to use them and use them most fully. While other libraries have provided group services and have turned out booklists, in Detroit the library's involvement with people, singly or in groups, is a way of life.
With the evolving patterns in our complex society the Detroit Public Library has realized that it must not only spread general reader services of high quality throughout the city and provide stimulation and reading motivation in every level of society and to every type of citizen, but also it has realized that it must develop subject literature in depth. ... We are now seeing changes which further reduce the necessity for routine work on the part of human beings and require higher orders of knowledge and ability by people who design and operate an automated, mechanized civilization. These people require access to specialized information to meet the needs of our society and of the people living in a great metropolitan complex such as Detroit. The development of subject departments with collections in depth and a staff capable of evaluating and servicing specialized materials is a modern contribution in public libraries which bids fair to set an example for the rest of the country.
What the automobile has done for the economic and physical life of the people of Detroit and the country, its library has done for its cultural and intellectual life.
- This Place, Chosen
- After 43-day Sit-in, Chicago Parents Get A Library For Their Children
- Ray Bradbury Believes in Libraries
- Requiem for a Community's Memory
- Cutting Papercuts
- And in Other News...
- Amelia Bloomer Project
- An Open Letter from a New York Librarian
Image Credits: 1) via Skyscraper City; 2) personal image; 3) personal image; 4) via TPEPost.