January 17, 2018

Michigan Supreme Court Says Library Can’t Be Forced To Allow Borrowing

By Norman Oder

In an opinion issued July 26 that left the Michigan library community relieved about the maintenance of local control, a sharply divided Michigan Supreme Court voted 4-3 to refuse to require the Bloomfield Township Public Library to let a non-resident buy a library card to check out library materials. For 40 years, from 1964 to 2003, the well-off city of Bloomfield Hills (population about 4000), paid the library to offer its residents access. When the contract was up for renewal—the city had been paying $226,460 and the township requested $463,550, or more than $115 per capita—the two parted ways. (The library’s funded at a rate of $132 per capita.).

Bloomfield Hills resident George Goldstone wanted to pay $54 for a non-resident family library card from the township library, but was rebuffed, since the library responded, as noted in its Q&A, that families pay about $400 a year. In his suit, he cited a passage from the Michigan Constitution, which stated, “The legislature shall provide by law for the establishment and support of public libraries which shall be available to all residents of the state….” 

In the majority opinion, Justice Stephen Markman noted, “Defendant argues that a public library is ‘available’ for purposes of our constitution when it is subject to entry and its resources subject to use on site. We disagree. Instead, we agree with plaintiff that a public library is only ‘available’ when a person enjoys reasonable borrowing privileges.” However, the court stated that the provision “is better understood, in our judgment, as assuring the availability of public libraries in general.” Markman observed that the dissenting justices would “disincentivize communities” from maintaining libraries if they were available to those “who had and had not paid for them.”

The Michigan Library Association, along with the Michigan Township Association and the Michigan Municipal League, filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting the library, arguing, “If ‘availability’ were dependent on expensive, individual library cards, then Michigan’s public libraries would be transformed into essentially private book rental repositories for those able to purchase a card.” The Detroit Public Library also supported the library in a brief, pointing out that the legislature had appropriated special funds to extend borrowing privileges at the library to every state resident and a loss of local control might lead residents to vote against renewal of their millage obligation. The Michigan Department of History, Arts and Libraries, however, supported Goldstone, suggesting in its brief that a “reasonable fee” to nonresidents would not burden the library providing access, and that a fee might spur residents where there is no library service to persuade their municipality to contract for library service.

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