Branching Out: Price of Admission

By Diane Haddad Premium

Facing a public relations backlash over an annual fee for nonresidents to borrow materials or access special collections — including the Burton Historical Collection of genealogical and local history materials — Michigan’s Detroit Public Library <> (DPL) gave out-of-towners a break.

In June, the DPL announced that it would start issuing $100-a-year nonresident library cards in August. But a Q&A sheet released July 21 states, “DPL values the customers who make special trips to Detroit to use the special collections. These customers can pay a daily use fee of $10 per day to use any of the special collections.”

John DuLong, leader of the grassroots protest group Advocates for the Burton Historical Collection <>, calls the DPL’s policy adjustment “good news,” but says, “We will stick with the plan of action.” That plan, which DuLong sent to DPL director Nancy Skowronski July 19, included initiating a library donation boycott and asking Michigan’s attorney general to rule on the constitutionality of a public-library access charge. (DPL spokesperson Conrad Wesling says he already had the literature listing the new $10 daily-use fee before he learned of DuLong’s letter.)

At press time, the Advocates planned to picket the library. Just before the daily fee went into effect, Detroit city councilmember Maryann Mahaffey’s resolution asking the DPL to rescind the fee was defeated.

Advocates members think even a $10 fee flies in the face of constitutional guarantees to public-library access and sets a precedent that, if other libraries follow, will impede genealogical and historical research. In addition, members say donations from out-of-town groups are a major funding source for the Burton collection.

In defense of the fee, the DPL says funding shortages make it impossible to provide the in-depth assistance required of special collections librarians. In 2003, after an audit revealed financial mismanagement and undisclosed accounts at the library, the Michigan legislature cut the DPL’s funding in favor of a system that requires the library to compete with other institutions for money.

DPL records show 60 to 75 percent of people who use its three special collections live outside Detroit. The Burton Collection began in 1915 with businessman Clarence Monroe Burton’s private library of 30,000 books, 40,000 pamphlets and 500,000 unpublished papers. It now encompasses the library’s genealogical holdings, rare books, maps and historical letters.

The nonresident fee makes exceptions for students, Michicard library consortium cardholders and Friends of the Detroit Public Library. Interlibrary loan isn’t affected.
From the December 2004 issue of Family Tree Magazine.