Vernadette McAllister has worked in the Detroit Public Library system for over two decades. Born and raised in Detroit, she moved to the main branch in Midtown in August of last year after the Knapp branch in Hamtramck she worked at closed temporary due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. McAllister spoke of the services libraries offer to their neighborhood, remembering one instance in early April when she helped an older gentleman who couldn't operate a computer or mouse make an appointment with the Secretary of State. (Detroit Free Press photo by Antranik Tavitian)

For patrons of Knapp Branch of the Detroit Public Library, the services go beyond borrowing books. 

Karen Plochinski has been visiting the small building on the northeast side of Detroit since she was a little girl. Before the pandemic, she found herself there once a week checking out DVDs, picking up tax forms or driving the neighborhood kids to get their library cards. 

Dave Sanders would go to the library to use the internet because he didn’t have access at home.  

Liza Bielby would put up flyers for her local performance company for neighbors to drop by to free events, and she’d organize art workshops for patrons of the branch. 

“It’s like a house with an open door,” Bielby, 40 of Detroit, said of Knapp Branch. 

That door has been closed for more than a year. Knapp Branch is one of 21 Detroit Public Library neighborhood branches that shuttered back in March of last year to curb the spread of COVID-19. Out of the 21 neighborhood branches, six — along with the main branch in Midtown — are open with limitations. The Detroit Public Library, like libraries across the nation, has adapted, offering virtual programming, running a mobile library and a laptop borrowing initiative. Still, patrons and librarians say what’s missing is the community atmosphere of neighborhood branches and access to free vital services. 

Bielby said neighbors need local branches as a central hub for more information on vaccines and information about upcoming city elections. 

“It feels like things are locked up and kept away from us,” adding that she recognizes that there is still a pandemic. Still, she says she would like to see outdoor programming and “some kind of hint that at some point it will be open and they have not forgotten us and our tax dollars that we’ve put into these institutions.”

The Detroit Public Library administration says most neighborhood branches are still temporarily closed because those buildings are small and it would be difficult to maintain safety precautions. There is no date set for reopening the closed branches, said Jo Anne Mondowney, executive director of the Detroit Public Library. 

Library officials during a Detroit City Council budget hearing in March said they are focused on maintaining the open branches. Officials said they are evaluating how to safely reopen the closed branches, while those branches remain closed until further notice. 

“We’re looking at how we can keep what we have right now,” Mondowney said. 

During the pandemic, the Detroit Public Library went virtual with its programming. Its mobile library makes stops across the city with services such as WiFi, book giveaways, book pick ups and one-hour laptop and tablet use. Last fall, the library announced a “Laptop to Go” program allowing people with an adult Detroit library card to check out a laptop for 90 days.

Starting in July, the six open branches and main library will be open for more hours in the day. And in fiscal year 2022, which starts in October, the library plans to offer more in-person service hours at those locations. 

Funding for library operations is primarily generated through a tax of 4.63 mills, which equates to about $230 on a home with a taxable value of $50,000.

Last month, members of Detroit City Council called for $9.5 million from the American Rescue Plan to go toward repairs at branches so they could reopen safely. 

In 2019, there were about 3 million visits to Detroit Public Library branches, according to a budget analysis. The library provided public access to more than 1,000 computers, and more than 250,000 children, teens and adults attended community programming before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Mary Jo Vortkamp, 52 of New Haven, reshelves books on Thursday, April 29, 2021 at the Detroit Public Library Jefferson Branch. Vortkamp is the manager and children’s librarian at the Jefferson Branch. Vortkamp was formerly at the Franklin Branch that closed in March 2020. (Detroit Free Press photo by Mandi Wright)
Mary Jo Vortkamp, 52 of New Haven, reshelves books on Thursday, April 29, 2021 at the Detroit Public Library Jefferson Branch. Vortkamp is the manager and children’s librarian at the Jefferson Branch. Vortkamp was formerly at the Franklin Branch that closed in March 2020. (Detroit Free Press photo by Mandi Wright)

The community’s ‘living room’ 

Mary Jo Vortkamp said the library she ran until the pandemic began — Franklin Branch on East McNichols Road and Gratiot Avenue — was a hub of community information. 

“We have one of the smallest footprints, but we were relatively busy,” said Vortkamp, who is now working as a manager and children’s librarian at the open Jefferson Branch. 

At Franklin, neighbors could learn how to get a recycling bin and get updates on city development plans in the area. Staff would help seniors learn how to use the computer and make an email address. 

“We’d know their names. We knew their kids, we knew their grandkids. Sometimes we’ve seen the kids growing up. It’s a nice sense of community when everything works together. And I miss that and I’m worried about my people,” she said. 

The closest open library to Knapp Branch is the Wilder Branch. By car that’s about a 8 minute drive, but by bus it can take up to 40 minutes. 

“The public library in many neighborhoods is like the community’s living room. It’s a gathering place,” Mondowney said. 

Over the decades, libraries have become “anchor institutions” in communities where people could find out about new job training programs, discuss local issues and access the internet, said Lisa Guernsey, director of teaching, learning and tech in the education policy program at New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. 

That’s evident at a place like Edison Branch — one of the libraries that re-opened in September, after having been closed since March of 2020. 

“The folks that live on Exit 9 and Joy Road, they’re very protective of their library. They love their library,” said Christine Peele, manager of the Edison Branch. 

For a neighborhood with lots of kids, the pandemic has meant fewer people in Edison. The library operates at 25% capacity and patrons can’t browse the shelves like they once did, she said. Still, Edison has opened up its tax program this year for seniors to help fill out their forms for free and Peele helps run a virtual author series for Detroit Public Library. 

But in the midst of neighborhood branch closures, getting to the nearest branch for those without reliable transportation can be hard, Peele said. 

“There’s not a lot of walkability in the city. But that’s what the branches are known for is that either it’s a quick bus ride, or very walkable to get to your local branch. …  but right now it’s not, unless you have the luck that you live in a particular neighborhood where those branches are still open,” she said. 

Libraries play an important part during economic downturns, said Curtis Rogers, director of communications at the Urban Libraries Council, a group that represents more than 150 library systems across North America.

“Anytime that there’s a recession, libraries have played an especially critical role in supporting job seekers, particularly those from low income communities or communities who have systematically faced barriers,” he said. 

During the last economic downturn, the library was “that place where people can go to get information about resume writing. They can check out books about interviews. They can come in and do job searches,”  said Vernadette McAllister, manager and children’s librarian at Knapp Branch, who is now working at the main branch. 

Libraries fill gaps 

Knapp Branch staff are eager to get back, McAllister said.

Staff there would help patrons with the state’s Community Health Automated Medicaid Processing System, or CHAMPS, so that individuals who were caretakers could get their payments. Children who don’t have computers at home would come to the library, McCallister said. 

“Libraries always stood in the gap between that parent not having the ability and the child having the need,” she said. 

A July report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy organization, found that 16.9 million kids across the country didn’t have high speed internet access for online learning — often referred to as the “homework gap.” The report, which analyzed 2018 American Community Survey data, also said that one in three Black, Latino and American Indian/Alaska Native families did not have high-speed home internet.

Research has shown that public libraries have played a role in providing free access to computers and the internet in order to bridge the “digital divide.” 

Sanders, 35 of Detroit, said Knapp Branch was his internet access and “made his life work” because he wasn’t able to afford his own. Luckily, right as the pandemic started, Sanders said he started school and was able to get a computer and internet through federal loans. 

“I’ve been thinking about this all year. I don’t know what I would have done if I wouldn’t have applied for school when I did. I think I would just be really stuck. I don’t know what options I would have,” Sanders, a gig worker, said. 

For Plochinski, streaming services now take the place of the DVDs she’d pick up at the branch, but Plochinski, 63, says she misses the community aspect of the library and is waiting for it to re-open.

In a neighborhood with a large Bangladeshi immigrant population, the branch had a Bengali speaking staff member and books in the language, too, McAllister said. 

“I would hope that when I go back, that I’m able to pick up and maybe expand some of the services that we had provided pre-pandemic,” McAllister said. “But most of all, I’m hoping that when I go back that I find a community that has been safe, that’s healthy.”  

Nushrat Rahman covers issues related to economic mobility for the Detroit Free Press and BridgeDetroit as a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

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