Metro Detroit's libraries evolve in changing times

“The death of libraries? Digitization of print could reduce today’s libraries to musty archives.”


The MIT Review posed that question in a headline more than a decade ago. It was as fair a question to ask then as it is now. Consider that the article was written in 2005, on the heels of Google making millions of books available from five major libraries available on the web, and that two years later, Amazon released the first Kindle.


Not long after that, the economy tanked.


Community libraries responded in the same way many other organizations and businesses responded to the economics of the times: They cut. Some libraries cut staff or hours or programming or all of the above.


Crunched by the tech revolution and the recession, libraries across the nation were forced to innovate. Across Metro Detroit, many community libraries have reinvented themselves, and, at long last, are beginning to grow their programming again.


“It’s the first budget year that we’re in right now that I feel like we’re beyond the recession,” Royal Oak Library director Mary Karshner says. “It takes a long time for that millage money to come back upward.”


More libraries and more hours


That sentiment is reflected across the region in new libraries being built, the expansion of programming and introduction of additional hours and days of opening.


In late June, the Busch branch of the Warren Public Library held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and officially reopened doors on Nine Mile and Ryan — a bright, airy facility equipped with 16 computers for internet and database access. The library is across the street from Fitzgerald High School. According to Warren Public Library director Oksana Urban, 100 new people registered for library cards during the month of opening.


The rebuilding of Warren’s libraries isn’t stopping there. On Oct. 12, the city broke ground on 3.4 acres of land on the south part of Warren where the Civic Center Complex will be constructed. It will house the Burnette library branch, along with a playground behind the library that’s designed for children with special needs, and what Urban describes as a “24-hour mini-police station and mini-City Hall.”


The new library branch replaces the current five-decade-old Burnette library near Nine Mile and Van Dyke. Funding for the library’s construction will be sourced from a few places, including the library’s fund, which comes from a 20-year millage approved by city voters in 2010; additional funding, according to C&G News, will come from funds approved by the Tax Increment Finance Authority and also the Brownfield Redevelopment Authority.


“There is still a need for libraries,” Urban says. By 2019, the city of Warren will have four state-of-the-art libraries.


That need for libraries is not limited to Warren—where, according to city figures, around 5,000 more library cards were registered from 2015 to 2016—but can be found elsewhere in metro Detroit as well.


In Royal Oak, following Labor Day, the public library for the first time introduced Sunday hours (1-5 p.m.) during the school year. They did it because that’s what residents were looking for, Karshner says.


Following suit is Ferndale Public Library, which, due to resident demand, it is opening on Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. beginning this month. That Sundays tend to be a library’s busiest day makes sense as busy families can visit together—and in cases like Royal Oak and Ferndale, metered parking surrounding the libraries are free on this day.


The additional hours on the weekend mean as much for the jobs being created—the Royal Oak library added additional staff members to fill the Sunday schedule — as it does for the children, teens, senior citizens, and more who patronize the library for all it has to offer.


New era, new library services


As public libraries adapt with the changing times, its librarians and rest of the staff must also adjust their skillsets and knowledge to serve the community.


The owner of a Nook, for instance, only really needs to understand how the Nook works with their computer’s operating system. A librarian not only needs to know how the Nook works, but they also need to know how the Kindle and other e-readers work, troubleshoot issues, and know how books can be downloaded onto both the iOS and Android operating systems—the list goes on.


Some libraries, including Rochester Hills and Warren, have started to loan out Wi-Fi hotspots, which means that when you go up north to your secluded cabin in the woods without internet or cell service, your library’s Wi-Fi hotspot has got you covered.


The Warren library also recently introduced, a service for high school students with a Warren library card to receive 24/7 personalized tutoring sessions for free (according to the website’s pricing plan, the service charges anywhere from $39.99 to $114.99 depending on the number of tutoring hours a month).


But the library also isn’t just about the technological services, which of course include the internet and computer labs. Technology can’t ever really replace family enrichment programs, live music programs, notary services, genealogy services—even books and beer programs.


“Circulation of books has been affected by people shifting to ebook formats, so it’s more of a case of how people get their books that they’re looking to read or listen to,” Karshner says, “A lot of the libraries in the area have seen physical book circulation go down while digital circulation has gone up.”


Libraries generate their programming specifically to cater to the residents in the community, dependent on factors such as demographics, age and what residents need and want, Urban says. Author talks are popular for her community. The library recently held an author fair with 16 local authors spanning various genres.


Craft and cultural programs in the diverse Oakland County city are also well-attended. In Royal Oak, Karshner says, Tuesday evening programs for families and preschool morning storytimes are popular, as is the year-round live music series.


The Rochester Hills Public Library has seen a decline in the use of library computers — but the tradeoff has been that there’s been a “tremendous increase” in the use of Wi-Fi at the library, says Rochester Hills library director Christine Hage. So the library has had to meet those demands.


Libraries cannot be created with a cookie cutter because a good library reflects and responds to the needs and interests of its community,” Hage says. “In a community where residents do not own computers or have broadband connections at home, the residents may rely heavily on public computers in their library."


This means that public libraries may offer many different services. But one service, says Hage, transcends all the trends: Books.


“People still read library books, whether in print or electronic format," she says. "The typical family cannot afford to purchase all the reading material needed for all members of the family. This is where the public library can really help. The Rochester Hills Public Library serves 100,435 people, and almost 70 percent of the residents have active library cards. Last year they checked out almost 2 million items. This is sure evidence that libraries are still viable public service organizations.”


Note: Please check with your local library to see if a specific service or program is offered.


Read more articles by Esther Gim.

Esther Gim is an editor based in the Detroit area. You can reach her on Twitter at @gim_esther.