You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 1:45 p.m.

Young people deserve access to resources a new library could make available

By Jeff Kass


The Ann Arbor District Library on the corner of William and Fifth streets.

Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and Macarthur Genius Grantee, says that when he was growing up, an immigrant kid from the Dominican Republic, learning how to speak English while he lived under challenging circumstances in government housing,

It was books that saved him. Books for Diaz were, and are, “friends; they are companions; they are mentors; they are warnings; they clown; they entertain; they hearten and they make me stronger.” He further elaborates on the influence of books on his childhood by saying, “All that deprivation and pain - abuse, broken home, a runaway sister, a brother with cancer - the books allowed me to withstand. They sustained me. I read still, prolifically, with great passion, but never like I read in those days: in those days it was life or death.”

And where did Junot Diaz find all these books? The public library, of course.

In less than two weeks, we in Ann Arbor will have the opportunity to vote on building a new public library downtown — a sparkling jewel that could become a centerpiece of our vibrant community, and I hope with all my heart, and for the sake of every kid in our city who has a chance to one day better his or her own life through reading, that we take it.

I work with close to 150 students a day, many of whom insist they don’t like reading. I don’t believe them. What I believe is they haven’t yet found the right books. I have hundreds of books in my classroom that I try to interest them in, but that is not enough.


Photo by Flickr user ionntag

We live in a culture that often communicates that reading for pleasure is not valued. Sure, everyone needs to read to be able to understand information, but what’s sexy among educational reformers isn’t literature, it’s math and science and data-driven data and standardized tests. The harsh truth is that our next generation of students will not find the literature they need in school. They need a dynamic library that can offer them thousands of books — vast multitudes of books — and we as a community can make a definitive statement about how important we believe it is to engage our own collective literary imagination by supporting the construction of the best possible public space for books we can build.

Contrary to the misleading “Save our library” and “Protect our Libraries” campaigns, building a new library is not about replacing books with computers or demolishing an architectural wonder that deserves to be designated an historic landmark. The current library has served our community well. My kids have grown up there and came to love reading through the wonderful storyteller Laura Raynor, through the summer reading program, and through all the terrific librarians who have guided them to the stories that have made their minds breathe. But I want their kids to have the same experience and I want all the kids in Ann Arbor for the next 50 years to have access to all the literature they can get their eyes on - for free - the way libraries always have been able to offer it.

When I imagine what a new library can offer, I am overjoyed by the possibilities - a beautiful grand reading room where anyone can come to enjoy a book amidst the company of other people enjoying books; a 400-seat auditorium where we can come to see readings, lectures, poetry slams, panel discussions, performances; public meeting facilities for book clubs, community groups and writing workshops; enhanced amenities like better bathrooms. It all sounds exactly like what I want the center of our city to be able to provide.

Believe me when I tell you, I have organized hundreds of literary arts events in Ann Arbor over the past decade and a new performance space that size is absolutely vital. At the Neutral Zone, we can fit about 250 people. The next smallest venue, which is only sometimes available and costs a lot to rent, is the Mendelssohn Theater and that seats 680. After that, the next space is the Rackham Auditorium, also expensive, and seats more than 900. We have many events that draw around 300 people. To be able to hold them in a new public library would be a godsend.

Last, let me say this - I have spent much of the past two decades traveling throughout North America reading poetry and teaching Creative Writing workshops. In every city where there is a vibrant, beautiful-looking and often brand new downtown library, there is also a vibrant and beautiful-looking overall downtown, a feel of the kind of place that promises to commit itself to its future growth and to imaginative, intellectual public discourse. We are that kind of community too and sooner or later - probably sooner - we will have to build a new library because the one we have simply will no longer be able to function effectively. Why not build it now? Interest rates and construction costs are lower now than they will be in a few years and our state needs the jobs that the construction will bring. So I vote yes. With enthusiasm. Let’s make a jewel dedicated to language and literacy right in the middle of our city. Let’s open its doors and let the public - all of us - come flooding in. For so many people, reading is life or death. Let’s vote for life.

Jeff Kass

English teacher at Pioneer High School

Literary Arts Director at the Neutral Zone

Programming Director for the Ann Arbor Book Festival


John Floyd

Mon, Nov 5, 2012 : 11:19 p.m.

"The harsh truth is that our next generation of students will not find the literature they need in school. They need a dynamic library that can offer them thousands of books — vast multitudes of books..." I thought we already had a library with thousands of books - let alone the several branch libraries. Have I missed something? The idea that the existing libraries are barriers to literacy seems a little far-fetched, as does the idea that a new building will have magic powers because it has a catering kitchen along with its 400 seat, book-less, not-a-conference center. Or is it the library's lack of understanding about outsourcing computer server housing that will create literacy? Frankly, the author's statement that "The harsh truth is that our next generation of students will not find the literature they need in school" seems to a much bigger barrier to literacy than the author's apparent inability to find the auditorium at Pioneer, where he teaches. You cannot fix broken schools with any off-site facility.

lou glorie

Sat, Nov 3, 2012 : 10:24 p.m.

I admire a contortionist in a circus. But the contortions of logic offered here border on hideous: kids need to read, therefore demolish the library we have downtown and build a shiny new one. To what end are you teaching kids to read and write if you are, by example, not only encouraging credulity, but insisting on it. Examine the vagueries offered up as imperatives: renovating the old library will cost 90% of the cost of a new one. (Without knowing the specifications in a bid request, this is not only meaningless, but cynical). Or how about the "need" for a 400 seat auditorium. Why 400, why not 250, why not 1000? What's offered are anecdotes on a few occasions when an event was crowded. Meanwhile the question of whether we want our library to get into the event business goes begging. You mention how a shiny new library would be an enhancement to downtown. While you as an individual may wish to spend $65 million to reanimate the downtown, this is not the Library board's mission. In fact if the board is acting on behalf of the downtown interests, it is acting in willful neglect of its duty to the library district as a whole. Those kids you care about—many of them do not live anywhere near downtown. Think about computer access at the Westgate Branch. It is difficult to understand how the project for a shiny new downtown library could have made it this far when Westgate is shoved into a dark corner of a shopping center. Look at these two sites and decide which one is in need of some money. Yes, kids need to read, but they don't need to do their reading in an architectural showpiece that will better serve as a resume stuffer than a service to our community.

Steve Bean

Fri, Nov 2, 2012 : 8:11 p.m.

"Why not build it now?" The best reason to wait a little longer (2-3 years instead of the 1 that the passage of this proposal would result in) is that we are about to head into a deflationary depression that will cut the cost of construction greatly. Pay $50-60 million for a building sooner or pay half that (or less) a little later for the same building. Either option comes with a 30-year debt repayment period and the same broader economic environment of increasing unemployment, lost retirement savings, and home foreclosures. Look to Europe to see what is coming our way very soon.


Fri, Nov 2, 2012 : 3:52 p.m.

If the critical turning point is library access for children, why not build another neighborhood branch? Let's face it, the downtown branch is not the most convenient for families with small children. Still, the demolition will eliminate at least some large portion of access to the bulk of the collection for at least two years -- a long time to lose for what could amount to an entire cadre of children.

Cendra Lynn

Fri, Nov 2, 2012 : 4:27 a.m.

The thinking on the proposal is backwards. You want us to vote to spend an incredible amount of money on a blank sheet. There is nothing showing what this library would look like, who would build it, etc. And this in a city where public safety no longer provides safety to the public! With a major university four blocks away, we are not lacking in imaginative, intellectual public discourse. The library is not a desperately needed venue for meetings and gatherings. Larger libraries are not needed to preserve access to reading material in a world where one need not get out of bed to acquire another book. I could not justify spending these millions on a new library when our firefighters are in actual danger due to understaffing, and the police have to choose between murder and bank robbery for the same reason. If the public is not safe, there will not be patrons to attend any library.


Fri, Nov 2, 2012 : 1:29 p.m.

Again, another very sensible reply. I'd rather spend $ on more fire stations. It's just common sense.


Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 8:26 p.m.

By library staff's own admission, the lower level meeting room with a capacity of 135 persons has exceeded capacity only eleven times in the past year. As was told to me those that could not attend events because of crowding were able to observe the presentations in other meeting rooms within the library. There are a number of 400 to 500 seat auditoriums available for reasonable rental rates in the Ann Arbor area including a number on the University of Michigan campus alone (e.g., Michigan Union, Michigan League, and Pierpont Commons). The remaining improvements desired for a new library can be easily provided through renovation at a fraction of the cost of a new building. The improvements that advocates identify include updated bathrooms (ADA compliant), an ADA compliant elevator, and replacement of heating and cooling units. No new technology is being considered since, I surmise, advocates for a new library have no foresight into the future of technology and its evolution.

Kathy Griswold

Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 4:19 p.m.

It is important to differentiate services from structures. Community High School provides an excellent education within a building older than the library. Excellent library services can be provided without a costly 30-year bond for a new building. The AADL is not collecting their full operating millage, and this needs to be evaluated against a costly $65,000 bond as a more cost-effective way of improving library services. In addition, we can reach our most needy children by decentralizing our library services (and structures) and providing more branches closer to our low income neighborhoods. The AADL area is almost the same as the Ann Arbor Public School district area (125 square miles), thus a downtown library is not the optimal solution for many needy children in the AADL area, especially those in parts of the seven townships outside the AATA service area. Also, a 400-seat auditorium may offer free or low cost rental to some groups. However, it is not free to the taxpayers who will be paying for a 30 years, plus additional operating costs. Taxpayers are already paying for the auditoriums in the AAPS high schools and some middle schools. Vote No for an opportunity for a better plan for improving library services for all in the AADL district.


Fri, Nov 2, 2012 : 1:27 p.m.

Probably one of the most sensible responses I've read. Bravo! Will the library provide free bussing to those who live in those low income neighborhoods so they can get downtown?

David Cahill

Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 2:52 p.m.

Before frequent commenter Donald Harrison shows up (again), folks should know that on his website he says he has made a promotional video for the "yes" committee. That video has been shown at the Michigan Theater since at least October 24. His website is


Fri, Nov 2, 2012 : 9:10 p.m.

Donald: It's not a matter of you and Peter hiding anything. It's a matter of the motivation behind your persistent and over-the-top support. "Follow the money" is always a phrase to remember in matters such as this.

Donald Harrison

Fri, Nov 2, 2012 : 4:07 p.m.

That's been publicly available for while, David, we're not trying to hide anything. People are welcome to learn more about all my involvement in arts/culture and commitment to contributing positively to this community.

Peter Baker

Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 3 p.m.



Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 2:15 p.m.


Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 4:09 a.m.

Written only like an English teach can! I voted early and I voted YES! A successful, FREE event space, cafe, grand reading room and activities will help populate the downtown on weekday evenings, even in the gloomy parts of the year. Talk about your win-win for surrounding businesses, parking capacity, and safety! Isn't if funny how a small group is advocating to put a "community gathering space" in the form of a lawn next to the existing library instead? Which will only be used half the year. When the weather's nice. Which can't be booked for organized events. Put down the medical marijuana and invest in the future!


Fri, Nov 2, 2012 : 1:24 p.m.

Duh, $130 million is far from free. Too much medical marijuana?


Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 8:12 p.m.

First, LiberalNIMBY, the event space will not be "FREE." Most of the 50,000 square foot library expansion will involve creating new meeting space. At a overall cost of more than $100,000,000 that space does not come cheaply. Furthermore, charging for use of meeting space will be considered though any fee will likely be less than for renting the auditorium in the Michigan Union or the Michigan League which may be similar in size. Creating a park over the Library Lane Parking Structure, as is being suggested, will not compete with any meeting facilities within an expanded library. Their purposes are completely different.


Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 3:02 a.m.

The downtown library houses the Washtenaw Library for the Blind. Did you know that there's only one bathroom that's handicap accessible in the downtown library? As our population ages, the need for more accessible space will be necessary. Changes in technology only change the configuration of the space we use, not the need for space. I appreciate Jeff's sentiments! Vote Yes on the library bond.


Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 7:51 p.m.

No, Peter, fixing bathrooms, an elevator and replacing the heating and cooling systems will not cost $58,500,000 (without bond interest) instead of $65,000,000 but only a fraction of that amount. What really drives up the cost of constructing a new "library" is the 50,000 square foot expansion with more convention center in mind than a library.

Peter Baker

Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 12:56 p.m.

Add up all the things that need to be fixed and its not far less money, in fact it's only 10% less.


Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 12:53 p.m.

That can be fixed with much less money and without an auditorium.

Jamie Pitts

Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 9:12 p.m.

Most people against the $65M bond are trying to make more resources available to the community, not bring about the dark ages. I am glad that the photo of the current library is used (, remember to not use it in your next promo piece). This is what we are voting to destroy. And we are voting to replace it with... what? Something charming that fits into Ann Arbor? Or more concrete garden? We can do all of the visionary things outlined in the proposal for a lot less money, and still preserve the current building. I encourage Ann Arbor to vote for utilizing society's resources more wisely.

Greg A

Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 8:57 p.m.

Though there are a lot of resources in Ann Arbor, they are not always accessible. There's a great 7 axis CNC at the U... but I'll never be able to use it. In fact, students often can't even use it. The same is true of physical spaces and an auditorium as mentioned in the article. I think that how we use our libraries in the future is going to change, and the use cases for the space will expand to things mentioned above, like poetry slams and writing workshops, but even further to things like 3D printing or collaborative learning opportunities like skillshare or other distributed educational models. I think Ann Arbor deserves a space which will allow creative people in a free and public space to be part of expanding what libraries are all about. There are few more creative and more hard working people than those at our public library, so to me this is a vote to give them and us a chance to continue to push the boundaries of what it means to be a library well into the next 50 years. It's a rare opportunity to empower effective, proven, functional public employees to continue to do good work and I won't pass it up. So I'm voting yes.


Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 7:39 p.m.

Well, Greg A, I guess you are a "Field of Dreams" fan with your idea of building a facility (which I will no longer call a library) that will attract people with all kinds of different ideas for using the space. Maybe the facility should have creative woodworking and electronic laboratories., much like at a high school or a college. Maybe the facility should include a photography studio and an audiovideo recording studio, like professional ones already existing in Ann Arbor. The vague plans provided by advocates of a new library will allow any of this or even all of this to happen but would it be the best use of $100,000,000? Would these facilities be utilized only by small niche groups whose activities exist elsewhere in the city? This would certainly push the boundaries of what it means to be a library and what it costs to build it.

Renee S.

Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 7:33 p.m.

People saying there's enough room in the library clearly don't have kids. You have to get there super early to get a spot for storytime. Today was especially bad because it was Halloween. We were no where close to being within earshot. We might as well not have gone at all!


Fri, Nov 2, 2012 : 3:58 p.m.

I have elementary-school-age children. I attended storytime at Pittsfield and Mallet (held in the multi-purpose spaces), and was never shut out. The downtown branch children's space is actually quite ample, all things considered. It could stand to be reconfigured, to be sure, and some of the collection could be dispersed to the other branches to create an additional space for storytime, etc. If you want crowded (with five people in the room!) visit West. Demolishing the downtown library wastes resources that could better be used to expand the system with additional neighborhood branches, and which would provide better access to books for more kids overall, not just those who can get to downtown.


Fri, Nov 2, 2012 : 1:21 p.m.

Sorry, but story time does not remotely justify $130 million. Read your kid a book at home.


Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 7:13 p.m.

Occasional library crowding for functions hardly validates a 50% enlargement of the facility at a cost of over $100,000,000 to tax payers. One way to handle popular events is to decentralize by holding the same event at the main library but also at each branch library and on different days. This arrangement will likely attract even more interest among patrons who would not attend the event at the main library but would at their local branch. Video recording presentations will also allow patrons to view the activity again or if they were unable to attend any sessions at all. These events may even be broadcast county-wide on CTN so that viewership would be broadened further. And none of this will cost nearly as much as a new library.


Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 7:20 p.m.

Yes, they do deserve access to a library, and yes, I did myself growing up. But this isn't a library, its something more and that is the issue that can potentially make this fail. The assesesment says building a new one is only a little more than refurbishing. Well, what if we just built a new library and not an audiotrium? We can all then have something new and modern at a much lower price. My family is a big user of the AADL and I think the amount I pay in taxes is already a little more than what we get out of it. I don't want to pay more to have an auditorium that I will likely never see even though my family is in a branch library at least once a month.


Thu, Nov 1, 2012 : 6:57 p.m.

Peter Baker did not say it correctly; what he should have said is the the staff of the Ann Arbor Library with concurrence from leaders of the library board and the Friends of the Ann Arbor Library are hopeful of converting the library into a community meeting facility. And the DDA is hopeful that enough meeting space will be included in the extra 50,000 square feet to justify a second effort at building a luxury hotel on top of the Library Lane Parking Structure as was hoped with the Valiant Partners proposal.

Peter Baker

Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 8:32 p.m.

Look here for information on how other libraries are adapting to the changing needs of their users:

Emily Puckett Rodgers

Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 7:19 p.m.

This is a great article about some of the community-based reasons about how we can benefit from a new downtown library building. I've co-hosted events with AADL that had to be housed offsite because they didn't have the space and I know how hard it can be to find good meeting space downtown if you aren't associated with the university. I also think now is the time to invest in our cultural and public infrastructure and to invest in our community. Public libraries are anchor institutions and ours is a national leader. Let's keep it that way. I'm voting YES for the new library building because I don't want to invest more money into a building that can't serve our needs. I want our tax money to go to programming, collection development, qualified staff and community investment, not heating and cooling an inadequate, inaccessible, unsafe building.

Adam Goodman

Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 7:15 p.m.

> So I vote yes. With enthusiasm. Let's make a jewel dedicated to language and literacy right in the middle of our city. I couldn't say it better, so I won't try. Excellent post.

Ryan Burns

Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 6:50 p.m.

It's true - there are few options for a small auditorium like the one proposed for AADL in this town that aren't too big or too expensive. This project will invigorate the library as a center of community learning and interaction, and that's something that's needed in the internet age more than ever. This project is about building a downtown library we leap at the chance to visit, in addition to resolving the many shortcomings of the current building. Great post.


Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 6:15 p.m.

Just about everything you say is right, as far as I'm concerned--but the unfortunate reality is that we don't have the resources to pull off a major project like this one right now, however appealing it is. Let's keep it at the top of our list of things we'd like to fund as soon as we ensure the funding of essential services. It's too bad that the proposed library was so costly--a more modest one might have satisfied **almost** all of the needs without giving the voters sticker shock. I know I boggled at that $65 million price tag, and I'm a big fan of public libraries.


Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 11:46 p.m.

It always sound like a drop in a bucket! The problem is we have buckets sitting all over the place!


Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 7:24 p.m.

Yes, But Ryan Burns, that's $56 a year more than the $150 I am already paying to use the AADL for a purpose that suits me just fine: checking out about 20 books every month. So know my library fee is going to be north of $200 for just checking out books? I like the events AADL hosts, but I can't imagine being in that auditorium more than a few times over the next ten years. Not worth "a buck a week".

Ryan Burns

Wed, Oct 31, 2012 : 6:46 p.m.

The millage of 0.56 mils is $56 per year for a market value of $200,000. That's a buck a week. With interest rates so low now is the cheapest time to build. The price per square footage is in line with other recently constructed central libraries, and the size is commensurate with the collections and programs that the library presents to it's patrons..