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Tossing Out History in the Motor City

This must be the season for weeding gone wrong. The latest story is from a high school library in Detroit, and I’m not quite sure what to think about it.

The high school library collection contained a book collection in African American history.  According to a “former special education teacher” for the school district, the collection “rivaled the collections of many community colleges. You can’t put a value on that.”

Before I get to the destruction, I’ll start with some other questions.

First, is rivaling the collection of many community colleges really that big a deal? A lot of community college libraries are tiny and have almost no book collection. This collection had 10,000 books, so it was pretty big by some high school library standards, but not exactly huge.

Second, maybe you can put a value on that. Were these unique items, rare books, out of print material?

One report has it that the collection consisted of “rare and out of print works and a vast video collection that included 1943’s Cabin in the Sky.” That’s an important film, but it’s also streaming on YouTube and can be purchased on VHS from Amazon for $7.

Having said that, the value placed on the books is probably considerably more than the library could afford to replace them. That’s why when libraries get rid of books they try to do it carefully and thoughtfully.

Instead of doing that, this high school library took the Urbana, Illinois approach and put it on steroids.

Instead of a spreadsheet of old items, apparently the whole collection was just tossed in a garbage bin. That’s certainly one way to weed quickly.

Supposedly, there was no intention to weed, at least as far as I can tell from the article. The school district superintendent said “a work crew mistakenly disposed of the books.”

Then he apologized and said, “the buck stops here,” both taking responsibility and feeling like a guy who drops atomic bombs on people at the same time.

The culprit might be the charter management company that manages the schools there. They supposedly were “rehabilitating the library.” Maybe they confused “rehabilitating” with “disabilitating,” if that’s a word, and I don’t think it is. They made it up just for this project.

How could a work crew “mistakenly” throw out 10,000 items? That’s a lot of stuff. Someone somewhere must have had an order to get rid of something. Workers don’t just go into a building and start tossing out library collections willy-nilly.

Was it deliberate? Was it part of somebody’s plot to make the library “relevant” to the 21st century?

Or was there a grand conspiracy to eradicate local access to African American history?

Nah, that’s pretty unlikely.

Regardless, there might not be a big conspiracy, but something sure stinks here, plus a whole lot of kids will miss out on some African American history.

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Comments

  1. Stephen Michael Kellat says:

    A benign yet counter-intuitive view of this would be to recognize that while the district is under emergency financial management it has deficits to make up. Selling assets off is a way to do that. The City of Detroit is facing that issue especially with respect to the collection at the Detroit Institute of Art as those are assets that may need to be sold to help clear city debts. Pitching the collection does get them off the school’s balance sheet to protect them from that sort of action while they probably could be scavenged by a sympathizer to preserve them.

  2. Eileen says:

    For the record, this happened in Highland Park and the Highland Park School District, not Detroit.

  3. Cynthia says:

    Conspiracy? Somehow I have a feeling no one involved was smart enough for a conspiracy. Sounds to me like ignorance won this prize.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Stephen Michael Kellat – you need to read the original article. No one went dumpster diving and preserved the materials to protect them from creditors. And as Eileen pointed out, this is not the city of Detroit, it is Highland Park. These are two totally different cities. Only Detroit is considering filing bankruptcy.

    • Sean Mars says:

      1. It would have been nice to know (least for archivists and librarians in Metro Detroit) this was going on because the archive at the Wright Afro-American Museum acts as a deposit library for all sorts of material African, Black, civil rights, etc. I know the archivist there would have LOVED the addition, providing it didn’t lead into duplication of items already on the shelves.
      2. Such events, like the closing of a school happens during the summer when no one is around to save such items. You would think there would be some sort of notice, but that’s asking too much from sneaky (though ignorant) bureaucrats. If I knew there would be a home for most of that library.
      3. Highland Park has an emergency financial manager, similar to Detroit, since June 19, 2001. Detroiters saw what happened there and they cringe, a federal bankruptcy judge might give the city a honest look.