When librarian Devan Green first read the policy on proper behavior at the Pontiac Public Library, she couldn’t believe some rules didn’t go without saying.
The rules prohibited everything from offensive body odor to panhandling – extreme policies written in response to day-to-day problems at the library.
The rules stem from poverty — the Pontiac Public Library is within walking distance from several homeless shelters and halfway houses, and has become a hangout of last resort for the poor and the unemployed.
“Every day when I would go to open there were people on the porch,” Green said. “Some may have slept there, but others come around to hang out on the porch before opening. Some of them are there an hour before we open our doors.”
Pontiac’s isn’t the only Michigan library that has had to accommodate a poverty-stricken community. Changes in society and technology have transformed libraries across the state from information resources to something closer to social services agencies that impoverished residents depend on to seek jobs or apply for benefits using library computers. And that means state funding cuts aren’t just resulting in fewer hours for visitors to check out books – they may actually threaten the livelihood of some of the state’s neediest populations.
More need, less money
In the 2012-2013 state budget, funding for library services was reduced by 9.4 percent, a cut of $2.3 million.
Gail Madziar, executive director of the Michigan Library Association, said that most libraries are funded primarily by local millages and state aid. Funding sources often vary between district, city and township libraries, she said. Some libraries rely more on millages or state aid depending on a number of factors, such as how the library was established, its size and the level of support from the community.
A drop in state assistance can be devastating in poor communities such as Pontiac. And the elimination of the personal property tax in December could also have an impact.
Some libraries are already budgeting on the assumption they will receive no personal property tax revenue, because they aren’t sure what will be available, according to Madziar.
The repeal of the personal property tax could also have a major impact on smaller libraries in northern Michigan. The Anderson Economic Group and the Michigan Library Association reported that 20 northern Michigan libraries could lose an estimated $502,480. The average loss would be 10% of total revenue from real and personal taxes.
But most Michigan libraries are funded through local millages, Madziar said. “The local community either comes out and votes to support the library, or they don't,” she said. “So of course we are very concerned that citizens have the opportunity to make that choice.”
Declining revenue has been a troubling trend for years. The Detroit Public Library, for example, which is funded by a millage, closed four of 23 branches in November 2011.
And libraries that don’t shut down are often forced to cut back on staff or operating hours. Statewide, Michigan saw a nearly 26 percent decrease in accessible hours last year, nearly three times the national average, according to the 2011-2012 Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study by the American Library Association. Two-thirds of Michigan libraries offer the only free public computer or Internet access to their communities.
Though the ABA study also showed the average Michigan library has more computers available to the public than the national average, 18.6 vs. 16.4 nationally.
A vital link for the less affluent
“One of the things libraries are dealing with is having to stretch dollars to keep up with technology changes,” Madziar said. “When it comes to Internet access, for many people in Michigan, the libraries are the only option. You can’t even search for a job or apply for a job without Internet.
“You can’t renew your driver’s license or license plates. You can’t even fill out tax forms, and that was something you used to be able to get at the post office,” she said.
Green said that in the Pontiac library, there’s a merry-go-round of people using the computers all day.
“They just don't have access anywhere else,” Green said. “Even to apply for or fill out the forms for government assistance – that requires a computer.”
While the library offers free classes and staff assistance for anyone using a computer, there are time constraints, Green said. Those with library cards get two hours, and a visitor’s pass is good for a half-hour session.
“A lot of people come to the library and stay there until the computers turn off,” Green said. “They’ll be there 11 hours if you let them.”
Not surprisingly, households with higher incomes are far more likely to have a laptop or desktop computer. Nationally, 42 percent of households with incomes below $30,000 do not have a home computer, compared with only 8 percent of homes with incomes above that level, according to a 2013 survey by Leichtman Research Group, which studies computer and media usage.
Librarians, or social workers?
Green has worked at the Pontiac Public Library for four years, but she also works at the more affluent Auburn Hills Public Library, which she said is a completely different experience, despite the proximity of the two cities.
“People who come to the (Auburn Hills) library just want a good book to read. It’s a happy, optional thing they do sometimes,” Green said. “But in Pontiac, these people need me to help them with their livelihood.”
Declining funds for libraries has a direct impact on staff — in places like Pontiac, they can't hire enough people to do what needs to be done, like assisting visitors or restocking books. And those who work there aren’t paid enough for what can potentially be a dangerous job.
Green described encounters with visitors with mental illness or substance-abuse problems, intoxicated or sleeping patrons who become belligerent, fights breaking out and patrons falling ill, even having seizures or overdosing, all in the library.
“These are grueling working conditions, and with the size of this needy population, there should be three times the staff,” Green said. The Pontiac Public Library currently has three librarians and four library assistants.
But Green stressed that most people who use the library are truly in need and don’t cause trouble.
“About 80 percent of the people you see are transient people, like visitors who are here every day,” Green said. “When I work in the suburban library in Auburn Hills and I tell people I deal with homeless people, they picture the wino or the prostitute. And you see that sometimes, but you also see honest, good people. Some of these people even have jobs, but they’re still homeless, or they’re trying to get back on their feet.”
And a lack of funding is getting in the way of helping the library’s patrons and its overwhelmed staff, Green added.
“You work a lot harder in an urban library than you should have to, but it’s thankless,” Green said, referring to the lack in funding. “Because the library is undervalued by people in a position of power to do something about it.”