Saturday, June 2, 2012

On the Death of a Detroit City Directory

I walk into the conservation area at work and notice the large object sitting on the table. It wasn’t there when I left work yesterday. Immediately, I recognize what it is. It is a Detroit city directory. The city directories are one of our library’s most popular and used collections, and as the state’s largest city the Detroit directories are particularly popular. They are also huge, especially the ones from the 1950s. This particular directory is “housed” in what our former library binder used to call a “book box,” which is constructed of a case – boards and a spine – with something like a slipcase attached to one of the boards. The slipcase only covers a third to half the book, leaving the rest exposed and allowing me to see the tattered and crumbly mess within. I groan. There is no note with the volume letting me know who left it or what they wanted done, but a note would not communicate anything that the presence of this book on my table already communicates.

After a brief pause I walk around the table and pull the book near me. I open the box and then the book, although both “open” and “book” don’t seem like the right words to describe what is going on. Pull back the sheet feels like a more appropriate description. The cavity between the spine of the book and the case is filled with crumbs occasionally big enough to recognize a name or two. The pages on top – or what is left of them – include listings of people whose last names begin with ‘D’. Pages are curled, torn, and tattered, if they are there at all. And gingerly moving though the first few pages I find an occasional piece of tape from earlier salvage efforts.

Imagine a child who has a beloved doll and one day a neighbor dog chews up the doll. Parts are torn, punctured and missing. And then the child hands you the doll and gives you that wordless, helpless look of “Please. Make it better.” And you feel completely inadequate to the situation knowing there is nothing you can do.

Yes, in my institutionalized, professional, adult job of working with books that is sometimes how I feel. These books both taunt and humble me “You think you’re so good. Fix this.” They are demoralizing. Sometimes I get angry that someone even left the book on my table. It feels like salt in the wounds.

Part of what challenges me about these books is that they are not victims of poor construction (though partly) or of disasters or of malice, but they are victims of their success. People like these books. They need these books. People use these books over and over and over again and that is why they are now virtually unusable.

I feel sadness when I get one of these books because I know that what will happen. Someone left this book on my table looking for a physician, but I will most likely play the mortician. I will make a box – an urn, a casket – and it will get housed in the cold, dark shelves of the rare vault placed neatly next to the others that have gone before it. It is available for those who want, but few show up to ask for it. It is still physically present, but its soul has departed.

Back in my conservation area, on my shelves of items waiting to be worked on I have a Detroit city directory. It has been there a while and I’m inclined to leave it there. Other items with detached boards or torn pages come and go but this book remains. It is a sobering reminder both of my own limitations and of what happens with life.

Sometimes I go down to the city directory collection on the second floor and look at the shiny new Detroit city directories that just came in. I look at these clean and agile directories and I think, “Enjoy it now, while you can.”


  1. A volume can be consumed as a “victim of its success” but most volumes in research libraries will be victims of disregard. However, there is an interesting relation between these categories. Over time volumes can migrate from disregard to regard. There are many other factors at work, but passage of time is a significant factor. A 1951 Directory will be disregarded soon after, but then come back to lend context and meaning to a much later Directory.

    So here is the curious thing: It appears that time alone is not a simple factor but rather it is the accrual of context and meaning over the cushion of time. It is as if documents were created under one agency for one utility and then became another resource entirely. This is not a very natural process. We expect a component of nature to keep to its familiar behavior.

    So to return to a previous discussion of how to distill collections we should factor this strange, unnatural behavior.

    1. Thanks Gary. I think the move over time from ubiquity to scarcity is also at play here. A volume which can now only be found in a few select collections becomes a different thing than when the volume was abundant.

      Your comment about the accrual of context and meaning over time made me take note that I never get calls offering our library 10 year-old newspapers, but I do get calls offering 100 year-old newspapers. 10 year-old newspapers just haven't accrued enough to be seen as valuable.