McGregor Library - Robert Wicke's notes & articles

 Written by Robert Wicke, head of McGregor Library Technology  - mcgregor@mlc.lib.mi.us, published in The Legacy.

Virtually all of the public issues of today and the ones on the immediate horizon call for a staggering amount of information. As we know, the ones that are being talked about are not necessarily the ones that will have the most impact on our lives. Everyone is likely to have some sort of list, as to which these would be. The environment would be at the top of my list, both from the standpoint of global conditions, e.g. global warming or ozone depletion and from the standpoint of possible emerging local conditions, e.g. toxics.

Several years ago Libraries for the Future published a guide for research on this topic, entitled: "The Environmentalist's Guide to the Public Library". Recently, they came out with a new edition, to be found at: http://www.lff.org/advocacy/environment/introduction.html I'd like to quote from that at some length here, not just because of what it says about that particular problem, but what it says about libraries:
, the public library is public space-a critical part of our local environment and
our community health. It is a safe place, a place to muse, and a neutral place that allows us to meet across differences. This space, like our natural resources, is quickly disappearing as public library budgets shrink and public spaces are neglected. In addition, information itself is increasingly becoming a private commodity. We invite you to join the growing number of public library advocates who are working in many ways-from fighting budget cuts to planing gardens in front of public libraries - to protect and nurture this community asset. (Emphasis mine.)

The public library is really a remarkable institution. Little more than a blip in the context of the whole sweep of world history, it first surfaced as an entirely free institution in 1787 in Connecticut. (Benjamin Franklin's founding of the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731 had been by subscription only.) The first municipally supported public library was in New Hampshire in 1833. What makes the public library so remarkable and so unique is just this: rule over a subject population has generally rested at least in part on ignorance of that population. The less general knowledge existent the better for the powerful. Here in the form of the public library is an institution that says that by showing up at the door, the citizen has the right to know anything that the institution has the necessary resources to show, to teach, to facilitate self-discovery regarding. Buried in that conception somewhere is the glimmering of an idea that the strength of the community depends not on ignorance but on the knowledge and the abilities of the population. And that, at the same time, governance in the interests of the whole community would have nothing to fear from this. Ideally, that is.

But, before we get too self-congratulatory on this development, we need to look at what has been happening on the other side of the equation. To explain that as quickly as I can, let me go to an image, the opposite of what we have been talking about, but almost concurrent with it, from not quite halfway around the world. I am talking about English Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham's idea for the perfect prison, the panopticon, in which the cells are placed in a circle around a central point from which each prisoner is visible. There are solid walls in between so none of the prisoners can see each other. A tower that cannot be seen into, but from which the interior of all the cells is clearly visible occupies the central point. So, the prisoners can be seen at all times, but cannot see the guard in the tower at all. A perfect power relationship.

In a lot of ways, modern society is like that. Yes, and we are the prisoners. Information about the individual exists in a large and rapidly increasing number of databases. This data is openly sold in the marketplace, as the individual takes his or her place as one in an audience or a particular market or a particular opinion group. Meanwhile at the top (or the center in keeping with the image), secrecy is the order of the day, mitigated by some brave battles to limit it, but with the over-all trend towards more of it, not less. And, quite frankly, the media become less reliable instruments to assist the public in its right to know, as more and more media concentration and consolidation takes place, i.e., while ever bigger monopolies merge with other monopolies.

So, those are two very important, opposed forces operating in our society, as we now know it. However, we might also want to keep in mind that public libraries are a rather diverse group, including large, research libraries, like Detroit Public Library, as well as community libraries. Community libraries naturally cannot hope to match the resources of a research library, but they have some really important functions. The reference desk at a large research library could never hope to give individual reference questions as much attention as a community library can. Some of the other important functions that can be mentioned in this connection include acting as the keeper of the community's historical record. McGregor Library has on hand a complete run on micro-film of four early Highland Park community newspapers, 150+ vertical file envelopes pertaining to Highland Park History, and two unpublished manuscripts on Highland Park's history.

We also provide curriculum support for the school district, as well as a place for the kids to study in after school hours. We encourage people to take an interest in adult literacy and to volunteer for tutoring with Literacy Volunteers of America, as well as providing space for tutors and students to meet. We have been making an effort to overcome the disparity between groups in the population as far as their opportunity to access electronic information is concerned, in current parlance, referred to as "the digital divide." We currently have 10 public computer stations, six of which are connected to the Internet.. (And hopefully the other four will be soon.).

We are very hopeful that it will not prove necessary to close the library even temporarily, as it is a much needed community resource. This possibility is not seen as a reflection on our current community leadership, but it may be a reflection on the times. The number of public libraries that closed during the great depression is 0, nationally; the number of public libraries under extensive financial pressure, in just our state, currently: more than is generally known. Why that big of a difference between the two historical periods? I think the reason is connected with what I emphasized in the quote from Libraries for the Future; privatization as against public spaces. I think we need to re-learn the importance of what we can do working together, as opposed to the sometimes very little we can do individually.

 


 

State of the Library Notes
By Robert Wicke

The following represents an assessment of the state of our library. As usual, I am including the disclaimer that these problems are not the fault of any particular past or present city officials; they after all developed over three separate city administrations. The problems can be divided into three areas, all of which require attention.

1. The building is a truly amazing piece of architecture with workmanship exhibited in a number of places that goes beyond anything possible with new construction, but it has been going down hill for some time. The problems range from the need for a new roof, which has resulted in extensive plaster damage and damage to the electrical system. Speaking of the electrical system, there are areas in which we definitely need light where we do not have light, e. g. two stack lights on your right as you go into the front door are burned out, thus making it difficult, in those two aisles, to even see what's on the shelves!

2. Staffing has been a problem for a number of years. Not all the positions needed are even in the budget. Our children's librarian, a person of extensive experience over a number of years, was laid off. Most of our support staff come to us through training programs, e.g., the Detroit Area Agency for the Aged.

3. The biggest disaster from my own standpoint is the collection, though. The library's budget has not allowed enough for acquisitions to decently maintain the book collection, let alone go to a multi-format collection like many of the suburban libraries have done. Typically, the suburban libraries will have feature and non-feature videos, talking books in a variety of formats, CD-ROMs, maybe DVDs and music CDs. Naturally, when you have all of that, it is much easier to attract traffic. On the other hand, if the budget is less than adequate, traffic declines and it becomes difficult to justify additional expenditure because the declining traffic is used to signify lack of demand. Most days we spend a lot of time being asked for things that we do not have. Given a functional collection including the things people want to borrow, the facility would be used a lot more and there would be more community pride. Now, suppose the library had a specialization of some practical worth, e. g., a foundation center collection, which people could access looking for funding. We could draw people from the entire north end and teach them how to do it online as well. Many of our people would still be going down to DPL for some things, but rather than being a dependant within the library community, we could become a partner with more resources to share.

Nationally, average library funding is around $23.35 per capita as of 1995. McGregor Public Library's per capita funding for 1999 is less than half of that at $10.76. Out of Class IV libraries (Libraries serving between 12,000 and 25,999), McGregor Library's per capita expenditure was fourth from the bottom. Obviously, using 2000 Census figures per capita expenditure goes up, but in no comparison does it come close to an average figure, and it remains embarrassingly close to the state averages for states such as Mississippi and Florida.

The range for Class IV Michigan libraries was from $6.39 per capita for rural Shiawasee County Library to $63.37 per capita spent by Orion Township out in Oakland County. Clearly this is an extreme range, representing a difference of 10X between the two. We have become accustomed to discussing inequities in school financing by comparing money spent per pupil in one district compared to another or comparing money spent in a larger unit like a state compared to another. Actually, comparing money spent per library patron in one library's service area compared to another is not very different. Both, actually, are measures of educational expenditure. A recent study of public library funding in Michigan had this to say about the issue of equity between Michigan libraries:
"There is significant inequality in funding public libraries across the state and there is every likelihood there will be increased instability in that funding if action is not taken immediately." (Public Library Funding Initiative Group, Final Report, 2001, p. 7-1).

PLFIG went on to study the way libraries in Michigan are funding compared to surrounding states and I will recap some of that. (The entire report is available in the library.) Before doing so, I need to address myself to a couple of alternatives at the local level, which have been somewhat misunderstood. One approach is to say that the library is not applying for enough grant money. The following is a list of the outside funding that has been obtained in recent years by the library:

LSCA grant Preservation microfilm Highland Parker 25,000
LSCA grant library automation 29,500
LSCA grant collection development reference and African American collection 30,000
LSCA grant internet access (dial up) 6,000
Donation public access computers (3) in kind
Gates Library found. 6 computers state of the art
Greater Wayne co. parenting class, redecoration of children's room 83,000
Chapter of Links furniture, money for children's reference books
Zeta Phi Beta software for children, books, and a VCR, as well 5,800
As two major cleanups +in kind
Metro Detroit Books
& Authors Adult Reference collection 2,000

Universal Service dedicated Internet access 15,000

Outside funding it is evident has been extremely helpful. However, no library can live out of outside funding entirely, for the very simple reason that the stream from that source can never be dependable and timely enough to make up for all or even most of the budget shortfalls. Also, it should be noted there is no full time funding officer in the budget. Some of these funds were obtained by the director and some by the reference librarian,
both of which have numerous other duties.

Another source often suggested for library funding is a millage. I am not going to say that McGregor Public does not need a millage. It does. However, one mill in Highland Park will not yield as much revenue as elsewhere since under the State Equalized Valuation, Highland Park real property is worth only so much, even though prices having been climbing a fairly steep curve over the last several years. The yield would be about $100,000 (Roughly $6 per person per year). It would not cover the entire budget, but it would serve to stabilize a part of it.

A large part of the problem is how to deal with the funding picture within the state. Comparing Michigan with library funding in some of the surrounding states yields poor results, especially considering that it is a large, high-income state. The Public Library Funding Initiative Group compares Michigan with Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Let me just briefly sketch in the high points with respect to Ohio. First of all, 1995 figures show Ohio ranking number one in the nation in library funding with a statewide average of over $43 per capita. In Ohio, public libraries are funded from the state income tax, with 5.7% of that being distributed to county libraries which in turn distribute it to public libraries within the county. Any excess goes to the library with the lowest allocation for the last year. There are also local tax levies accounting for 5 to 50% of library funding, and state programs in addition. Whether this would translate easily to Michigan is not really the issue. The issues are two-fold as far as our library is concerned. How to obtain some immediate help for McGregor and how to improve the model of library funding in Michigan so that supports in an equitable fashion all the libraries in Michigan. Citizens could help in this effort considerably by contacting State Senator Scott and State Representative McConico and letting them know of the importance of strengthening library funding in Michigan and about the immediate need of help for our library.

Previously published in The Legacy

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