Josie Parker is the Director of the Ann Arbor District Library. She grew up in Mississippi and earned a BA in English from Auburn University. Josie then went on to earn her Masters in Information and Library Studies from the University of Michigan in 1996. She has worked as a public librarian in three systems in Michigan and has served as Director at Ann Arbor District Library for the past eight years.
Josie has served on the boards of the Michigan Library Consortium, the Michigan Library Association, and the Public Library Association. In May of 2010, she was named an Honorary Affiliate of AIA Michigan.
Josie strongly believes that librarians must pay deliberate attention to our built environments, and that our obligation to do so is as important to future generations as our efforts to ensure equitable access to information.
Will public libraries exist at the turn of the next century? I am convinced that unless people other than book lovers and library professionals pay better and close attention, then the answer will be a definite no.
Public libraries as free libraries open to the general public have existed just over a century in the United States. Private research collections and subscription libraries have been in existence as far back as colonization, but what we came to know in the 20th century as public libraries owned and funded by local governments sprang up primarily from the philanthropic efforts of Andrew Carnegie.
Not much has changed from Carnegie's day in terms of wrangling over the purpose of public libraries, their architecture, interior design, and location. Carnegie anticipated such wrangling and, consequently, imposed conditions on communities accepting his money. These included a requirement that the community donate land and guarantee long-term funding of annual operations. He chose the architecture, exterior and interior.
It sounds like the worst possible scenario. A wealthy industrialist deciding local architecture for a building providing a service that was new in most American towns and cities; however, over 7,000 Carnegie libraries were built worldwide and many still serve as libraries.
Thankfully, ours does not.
The Ann Arbor Carnegie library opened in 1907, but only after several years of dispute between the City Commons Council, Ann Arbor Public School Board, and the Ladies' Library Association. The disagreements centered on the purpose of a free public library and its location. At one point Carnegie funding was actually declined, but a gift of 30K was later accepted and used to build a library whose façade is preserved on the new UM North Quad on Huron Street. The Ladies' Library Association was, and remains, a strong group of women who were determined to provide a library that was “public in the largest and freest sense” (Ann Arbor Daily Argus, December 13, 1903).
At the turn of the 20th century, print was critical and rare, and unavailable to all but the wealthy. Search engines were people, and those people needed to use print reference sources to answer critical questions. The publishing industry was developing, and then as now, collection size was a dominating factor in the size of a building. Carnegie buildings were usually small, but included space designed intentionally for children and in some communities, full size gymnasiums and performance theatres filled basement areas or second floors.
The Library in Ann Arbor has enjoyed uninterrupted support from donors and activists over its entire history. The value of publicly funded space, library collections, and services for all ages to use to learn and learn again, the adoption of technology as a tool, and the building of buildings to house those services was carried forward under the leadership of Library Director Homer Chance with the move out of the Carnegie building into a new Downtown Library, and with the opening of branch libraries. Recent years have seen the Library continue to grow, adapt and change in order to continue to return to the community a fine library system.
The Carnegie model and vision saw libraries flourish over a century only to be faced today with conditions that may very well see them disappear all across America. Funding is eroding, content is no longer tangible, and the commonly held belief of many at the turn of the 20th century that access to collections for reading and learning was to be freely available and accessible is a fading value.
At the same time, 20th century thinking about building design, content delivery, and technology cannot be sustained in the 21st century public library. While all seems fine in Ann Arbor and the surrounding county, we won't escape the implications of decreasing revenue or the radical changes in the publishing industry. If we want the value of the public library to be deeper than just the façade of what things used to be, we need to know the challenges and meet them.
The development of the Downtown area in Ann Arbor has been a discussion the entire 17 years I've lived in the area. I never expected it to become central to my own career or daily work, but it is, and likely will be for a number of years. I watch and listen to conversations, take note of every vote for and against development in and around Downtown, and listen to the interminable debate over what constitutes the Downtown in Ann Arbor. I can't help believing that the point is being missed. Entirely.
I saw, as an employee, the Ypsilanti District Library fail to gain the support of historic and preservation groups, and Downtown neighbors for a new, modern public library to be built in the old high school building on Cross Street. The new building was built outside of Downtown in Ypsilanti Township and while it is very well utilized, and the Downtown building was remodeled, the community missed a great opportunity to place an anchor in the struggling Ypsilanti Downtown.
I saw, as an employee, the Chelsea community commit to their public library remaining Downtown. It was a difficult conversation. A village was becoming a city, and the Library was becoming a district with taxing authority. The votes were always close; the discussions were vigorous and often heated. In the end, that community had a big idea about a small town library and they made it happen. The investment is paying off for the Chelsea Downtown area.
I have never worked at the Dexter Library, but I have watched with great interest how a small town has kept its downtown vital and thriving with a variety of businesses even while losing a major supermarket. The new Dexter Library is an anchor to that development.
Libraries can be drivers of economic development, but are not in charge of economic development. If decisions to develop city owned, other publicly owned property, and private property are ever made for Downtown Ann Arbor, whatever is decided will have a major impact on the public library Downtown. By the same token, deciding not to develop vacant property adjacent to or near the Downtown Library will have an impact on the future of that Library in that location.
So what do I think is being missed in the local discussion about development in Downtown Ann Arbor? What's missing is consideration of the larger area and all the people and entities affected by decisions about Downtown. The decision should not be exclusively a local one. While a city is funded with local taxes, it can and often does, include entities whose boundaries are larger and whose constituents live outside of the city and commute for miles. The development of a Downtown is a big responsibility held by a few, but affecting far more people than those who pay directly into a city's coffers. It is critical that we take the long view and acknowledge all of the different investments that are made to assure our community a vital and thriving Downtown.
If public libraries are to continue to exist beyond the first half of this century, we all need to make that decision and we need to make it right now. I’m not talking about an emotional decision that "libraries are good", and "we all loved story time", and "what’s not to like about libraries?"
I'm talking about money and civic priorities. Many libraries in Michigan and across the country will survive the current annihilation of public library funding by state and local politicians, but a good number of them will not. Those that do will still contend with eroding tax bases: sometimes the enemy appears friendly.
The best example on the local level is Tax Increment Financing Authority, or TIFA, diversions on property taxes captured by local taxing authorities. District Library millages are eroded by these tax diversion structures and in a poor economy the use of TIFA diversions increase. Common TIFA authorities are Downtown Development Authorities, Brownfield Redevelopment Authorities, Historical Neighborhood Authorities, Corridor Improvement Authorities and several others in Michigan. Sometimes public library Boards can opt-out of a TIFA diversion, but most of the time opt-out is not permitted by statute.
The long and short of it is this: When a community votes a millage into effect for their local library, TIFA diversions in that community take taxes off the top of the Library millage and that money does not go to the purpose it was originally voted to support.
There is great good in Brownfield Redevelopment, and Downtown Development Authorities provide important infrastructure and economic development support for communities. The cost can be too high, though, for tax supported public institutions. Legislation providing TIFA opt-in or opt-out language needs to be adopted. Libraries can only use taxes for library purposes. Libraries have no other taxing options available to support themselves. Library Boards are responsible for providing certain services with voted millages, and expectations for those services do not decrease with the tax base.
The statewide public library funding picture in Michigan is bleak, and at the same time sadly telling in terms of legislative values. The talk is always righteous about education, life-long learning, and literacy, but even when the money was flowing into the state budget, cuts were being made to public library funding. Libraries have been cut disproportionately compared to all other areas of the state budget - 17% in 2009, 40% in 2010 – and no increases since 1998.
Public libraries are asking for $7M this year in state money to protect statewide library services such as Michigan Electronic Databases (MeL.org) available to all Michigan residents. When the State of MI closed walk-in unemployment offices and moved forms and processes online, where did unemployed persons without the money to pay for an internet connection go to file and to look for work? They went to the home of a friend or relative, or to a public library.
Public libraries in the United States have changed and flexed through a century. Those that are governed well and managed carefully will make it through this difficult time, but the individual community member needs to value them and be aware of what they represent in a community, and to know what they cost a community. Public libraries are not free, but access to them is equitable and the doors are open to all. If we neglect to fund them, or allow the voted public will to be diverted for some other purpose, we are taking away chances for thousands of persons trying to get ahead in Michigan and that is not friendly.