The Detroit Public Library. One of the beautiful crown jewels in Detroit. This building is so much more than a collection of books. It also contains exhibits, collections of some of the most prolific writers in history. Joanne Mondowney takes us through the history of this gorgeous building. And how this institution is staying relevant not only in the 21st century but during times of Covid.
Detroit Main Library
5201 Woodward Ave,
Detroit, MI 48202
Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:00] hello everyone. And welcome to the show. My name is Cliff DuVernois. And today. we are fortunate enough to be able to talk to the executive director of the Detroit public library on the podcast today. Jo Anne Mondowney, Joanne, how are you?
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:00:50] I’m well, thank you for having me.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:00:52] Great. And thanks for taking the time out today to speak with us. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about where you’re from and where you grew up.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:01:00] I am from Baltimore, Maryland. I grew up in, the East side of Baltimore and I have a huge library experience. I became a young adult librarian and worked for the Pratt free library. for many, many years prior to my coming to Michigan. I, was. Probably an accidental librarian, even though I lived around the corner from a small library and love, love reading.
however, I had aspirations of being in a marketing and accounting, which is where my undergraduate with degrees are in accounting and marketing. but I ended up working for the library, never looked back on a career in retailing or marketing research and, have absolutely no regrets about being.
I’m associated with. The public library.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:02:01] That’s excellent. You’re one of the, you’re one of the few people there that have hit on there calling on the very first try going out. So. you know, hat tip to you, what is it? What is it about? Working in the library system. you know, for the, for the public library that, that really attracts you to it.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:02:20] It is the variety of things that library offer. I sometimes jokingly say, first of all, we have something to offend everybody. But we also have the ability to teach and to show what diverse thinking. Should be, aisle. We don’t judge. We were one of the most democratic institutions in the world because we try to present all points of views and to have others understand and respect.
All points of views and that’s the one thing. I really appreciated about the library and the fact that there, if you are a person that loves to read, love, to learn. You can’t find a better place. Then the public library for lifelong learning.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:03:08] And that’s true. And I’m so glad that you mentioned the lifelong learning, because I think as a society, as a culture, we have actually past the point. Where you could just study one thing. And then just do that for the rest of your life. You, you have to be, things are just changing too much. and in order for, you know, for somebody to be some, for somebody to be stagnant, you, you have to be constantly learning. So, that, that’s an excellent point that you bring up. What was it that brought you to Michigan?
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:03:38] I was recruited to come to work. I had worked with the person in Baltimore. Who had become the executive director of the Flint public library. And, at a point needed an, an assistant. And said that I needed a Midwestern experience and, And, and, didn’t know that I needed one. Came to the surprise of most people, because I’ve always operated on the East coast.
And so I was recruited to become the assistant director. On the Flint public library. And then I became the director and then I was recruited to come to Detroit as its executive director. And I had this, notoriety of the first outside director to come to the Detroit public library and 140 years.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:30] Wow. That’s a, yeah, I didn’t even think about that, but, wow. Well, congratulations to you.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:04:36] Well, thank you.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:04:37] For for doing that now. As far as like the public library goes, I’d like to talk a little bit about the history of that. So you just mentioned the first time in 140 years, right? So that’s when the, the public library was founded.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:04:51] No, actually the public library, the Detroit public library. celebrated its 150. If you’re in 2015 and is now 155 years old.
As a library and, and as you may know, it is the largest public library in the state of Michigan. it has, collections that are world. We know. like the largest automotive history collection in why not is Detroit. And it has, an outstanding, the Clarence in Burton collection, which includes, the automotive history collection, as well as the
Zalea Hackley collection, which documents the achievements of black performing artists. it also has the Ernie Harwell sports collection. And rare books collection and, as well as, growing digital collection. Not to mention many of, some. Very rare manuscripts. Like the Laura angle. Walder’s manuscripts to the letter from, a young woman by the name of grace Biddle who told Abraham Lincoln.
if you grow a beard, I think you will win the election. And she, and he did. And, and when, for the 200 anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. The two letters, Abraham Lincoln did respond to grace. And, the library of Congress. Asked that the original letter from grace would, be on display, showing the two letters side by side, going to 200 anniversary. So.
That was a wonderful. Thing that, that we have that letter.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:06:37] And I think you bring up one of the, one of the very. Appealing points of the Detroit public library. When you talk about, and it almost, it almost sounds like a museum, but having these different collections on display for. For, for people to come in, is this, is this something that’s always been a part of, the Detroit public library, or is this having these, having these collections come in for people to view? Is it something that’s relatively, relatively new?
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:07:08] No, it’s been been a real standout aspect. Of the value of the library. And in part, it was due to Clarence and Burton, who was, as people say, he was kind of like a pack rat who, collected things and a bit of a hoarder, but he, establish the, collection with all of his, he was an attorney in Detroit and he collected things like he would read in the paper. If somebody passed away, he’d go knocking on their door of the, you know, his survivors and asked for.
You know, papers to look at and he collected them and then he decided. That he would turn over. His collection to the Detroit public library. And the thing that he did that was, that was very, For forward thinking was not only did he just turn it over, he endowed it where it could grow and be taken care of. So.
We’ve been doing this for over a hundred years now.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:08:17] Wow. That’s that is that’s really exciting. I know that. And when you talk about, Hey, these collections coming in, in public library, and I know that there’s a lot of people out there that are now pushing for, or they have been pushing for, you know, like a real. Digital experience. I would really like to get your perspective on, you know, in the world of e-books in the world of instant gratification.
how do you see the, the, the library, the, the, the, you know, the books that you can go and smell? W, how do you see the library’s role in this, in this technology world going forward?
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:08:53] What will libraries or libraries across the country are playing a major role. And here’s what has happened cliff with this, with the pandemic and how things, how people have not been able to enter into places like libraries and touch and feel books. We have been fast, forwarded into people, learning to survive off of eBooks.
And it’s, it’s kinda like, You know, some people say, well, equals have we, is it an evolution or revolution? And the way I looked at it is kind of using Detroit as a model. You know, Detroit, what’s the heartbeat of the auto industry. And at the same time when things were beginning to change and there was so much chaos, so much creativity and confusion, with transforming, from transferring from horses to automobiles.
And how, how that became the basic mode of transportation. Because we are entering into the digital world. We’re in we’re there. We know that there is going to be a generation. Just like there was a generation that never rode a horse to go to and fro there’s going to be a generation that’s going to have, they’re going to be very comfortable with the, the way their brains are now rewired in their digital natives. And they’re going to be happy to do this, but there’s always going to be, I don’t think the book is going anywhere. I think the physicality.
Those who love touching and feeling and in, in, reading and being able to control with your hands and, and what you’re doing, that’s going to be with us for awhile. I think Gutenberg had it right when he was able to begin to mass produce when we were able to mass produce. A copy. So, so I think it’s going to be,
We’re going to get along. I can say that.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:10:53] Excellent. And I know that you mentioned before briefly about, you know, the COVID 19 and the popularity of e-books. One of the things that I came across on your website is the. The wonderful virtual events. That you have going on. And a lot of them are evolve. Involve. Teaching people like writing, whether it’s creative writing or whether it’s journalism. Talk to us a little bit about the Genesis behind.
That idea. Is this something that you have always done or is this something that you implemented? as far as COVID goes, talk to us about that.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:11:29] Yeah, well, we’ve had writing programs and, and the thing about, it was done in person, but the one of, one of the, well, what we tried to do was look for any silver lining. There was two. The cobot. And what it did for us is to propel us into. Doing things virtually. Which we didn’t have to do prior to the pandemic. And we have such creative librarians.
That we’re able to transfer some of the in-person. Programs into the virtual environment. And so the writing and journalism programs in poetry writing and so forth, we’ve done that. It’s just that it is now in this virtual environment.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:12:17] Sure thing. And with regards to the virtual environment or from, from your perspective, there. Is this something that you’re going to see continued. I mean, even if the COVID. you know, the COVID pandemic gets behind us. As does the see something? Is this something that you see continuing going forward?
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:12:37] Yes, because what, what, what we’ve learned about the virtual environment, you can get, have more people involved. In in the virtual programming that, for instance, if you were doing a small, a project where you were teaching, let’s just say teaching somebody, knitting, whatever. Well, you would have a room where you could accommodate maybe 25 people.
In a virtual environment, it could be 200.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:06] Yeah, that’s really cool. And I like that, and you’re not, you’re not restricted by geography. Only, only thing people need is the internet.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:13:13] Absolutely. And so, and so your, your work. It travels farther and more people are able to experience, a program or project that you were unable to do while you were limited in the number of participants.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:31] Yeah, that’s, that’s really great. And as far as like instituting these, these virtual classes online, at what was. You know, what was the reaction of, of your staff when you put this together and said, okay, this is, this is what we’re going to do. What, what was, what was, what was their reaction?
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:13:48] Well, actually it was the staff that said, this is what we can do.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:13:51] Sweet.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:13:53] It wasn’t like, we, it wasn’t a top down. Mandate it King, which makes it even richer. And, and people were willing to say, we can do this. I can do that. So, no, it was from the staff that said, you know, in order for us to, be valued in and vital to the, to the community, here’s some things we can do virtually. So I bought out many talents and skills.
That weren’t necessarily use because you didn’t have, you did so much in person.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:14:28] That is that’s absolutely excellent. And, and, and I love that. That your, that your team was proactive by that. And, you know, and, and getting that out there. That’s really great. I wanted to ask you if, you know, if somebody was coming down. to Detroit, they just wanted to come by the public library.
And you check it out. What would be, what would be like your, your three recommendations? Like if you come in here, if these are three things that, that you should see or that you should experience when you come here.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:14:57] I think you should visit the, Burton historical collection. And you should go up to our, climb the grand staircase and look at the murals that are there and the work, the workmen craftsmanship that went into building.
This building it is simply gorgeous. And then take a look at our, collection and what were, how we’ve tried to wed, history with today. You’ll see I’ll technology. Programs that are going on in our, throughout the library, in our children’s collection. You should, those are the top three things you should see the grand staircase take walk up there, take a look at our fine arts.
department the historical collection, and then take a look at how vital we are for the public today with our in instituting technology and incorporating I’m sorry, technology into all that we’re doing.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:16:01] Excellent. And, and I know that, when I was talking to some friends, before, we were getting on the podcast and I, and I made a comment about how I could not wait to ask you that question. Of course, their first question to me was. Do I have to do, I have to have a membership? At the public library in order to go in and see those things.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:16:20] No, you know, all public. Any, any public library around you couldn’t go to any public library in America. in visit. You where it starts is when you want to check out things.
That, that’s when you have to have a library card, but you could use, you can get guests passes to use, like computers in the library is just that you can’t check out items. That’s the only, Limitation you have, but you can visit it’s public.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:16:48] Sure. Sure. And has there been, you know, between the Detroit public library and, you know, the, the, the community that is around you, because there is a lot of great institutions, a lot of great businesses that are in the area. has there been, like partnerships in the area where you’ve, where you’ve done, maybe joint ventures with other people that, you know, maybe surprised you or, you know, the, the, perhaps the turnout was a lot more than you expected it. Has there been anything like that?
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:17:18] Yes. especially with, The Detroit Institute of arts, for instance, when they had, Several collections. We have been able to benefit by showing what we have we’ve we’ve partnered with Wayne state when they did the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. we have some,
Shakespeare in rare items. So no, we, and this is what makes the whole cultural center areas. So, which is that there are always opportunities. to collaborate.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:17:52] Yeah, that’s, that’s really good. And I know in a couple of the interviews that I’ve done. with the various organizations in Detroit, this is one of the things that they, they have always made sure that people understand is the fact that there’s a lot of, organizations down there that are actively working together too.
either share common resources or, you know, joint. experiences for people. So if there is visitors in Detroit, that it really does create a whole around experience for them.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:18:21] Yeah. And it’s not haphazardly done is very intentional it through the Midtown corporation, which has really been instrumental and bringing groups. organizations together, not only with, you know, the, the, revitalization with the Cass corridor and making sure that things like Noel night and, dielectrics city.
having the organizations collaborate in a very, very intentional way that has only enhanced the experience of those who. Come into the area.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:18:57] Excellent. And I have to ask this question because. You and I were talking a little bit about this before I hit the record button. And that is, that is that, that you and I really do share, this, this love for reading. I I’m, I’m all the time. Got my nose in a book, actually. It’s how I start my first hour of the day.
Is I’m reading. What, what are some of your, what are your same, some of your favorite reads that you’ve experienced, that, that, either you’ve gifted that book the most to people. Or perhaps you yourself have gone back and re-read that book. And, you know, several times.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:19:37] Well, there are lots of them, but Yeah. I mean, I have always favored as, as a young person. I’ve always loved Russian short stories. Which is yeah.
And books like Anna Karenina. I mean, I always, as a kid read big books. Even though I couldn’t, I mean, I would have to have a dictionary, but I’m from a family of educators who never, ever tried to limit what I could read or should read, which I loved. but I I’d like, Or Neale Hurston. I always love short stories and some of my writers that, I mean, some of the writers that I enjoyed as a young person,
was just because I like what they wrote.
Like I love which it right. But I also read HL Mencken. And, and that was because, as I said, I lived around the corner from the library, which I was not. Limited to what I could read or should read by my parents. most of it, you know, if it was, if they thought it was a little above me, I didn’t understand it anyway, but I was able to read it.
So, I like a variety of writers, honestly, and they run the gamut, but my favorite has been rushing levels. And, So let stories. But I’ve read people like Toni Morrison, which is a hard week for me. Tony is kinda, you know, you really have to put yourself into it. I like, and I love autobiographies and biographies.
So, you know, I’m one, the gamut and, and I’ve always the thing that. when I was in college, I would tell people I would read a book and I couldn’t help, but you know, want to share it. And for some reason I got into a lot of crime novels, like in cold blood Truman Capote. And those kinds of, but it was.
If a book, the thing that I would always know about a book. When it would really get to me is if I had to put it down and I keep wondering what the characters were doing.
And that’s when I knew, you know, Oh, my God. It’s really getting to me. So. When that would happen. I would like tell Bebe, you gotta read this book. You gotta read this story and then we can talk about it. So.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:21:55] Excellent. And, and I, and another question that I got for you is that, cause I know you said, you know, growing up, you had. You know, a public library around the corner. What would be like maybe some, some perspective that you have to. You know, for, for parents out there that that might be thinking, man, I wish that my, I wish that my kid would read more and would invest more. What would be maybe some, some, pieces of advice.
that, that you would give the parents.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:22:23] Well, you know, I think, I think, one of them. And this goes to. One of the things I did when I, when I came. To Detroit. And I listened to some of the problems that children had and learning to read. And, I always felt that. It’s important to learn, to read. But it’s critical to love to read.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:22:48] Oh, wow.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:22:50] So, so that if a child is struggling with and, you know, learning to read it, Can be really tricky for, for a young person. But I think that, if a parent, you know, first of all, demonstrating that. My, my mother who was an avid reader. Would always read with us to us and we, and we always talk about what we were read. And so, it made us, it was just natural for us to want to read and talk about everything that we read with each other.
And I think that parents can engage if they engage in at a very, a child at a very early age. And if there are problems, if you see that there are problems, there are people who can help analyze what that problem is that could get a kid. You know, to, to learn because if you don’t, if you have problems learning to be, you won’t love it.
But once you really learn it. And people get excited. And about what you’ve read and you encourage them that, the kid will, you know, it’ll become a part of them.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:24:00] Man. I love it.
I love it. I’ve I’ve I was going back to the, to the statement that you made earlier that,
Let’s see if I can rephrase it. How you said it. Cause it was wonderful. It was, it was,
Learning learning, learning to read is good, but loving to read as critical.
Yeah. that belongs on a t-shirt. I love that.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:24:23] Yeah. A couple of people I’ve said that before and they said you should. No, the t-shirt.
I just think that is what it is critical. To love it. You gotta love it.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:24:35] Yeah, it is. And, and, and you bring up a good point before when you talked about how the, the role of the library. Is to kind of like to not even really present, viewpoint, but rather have all the material there so people can come in and if they want to. You know, perhaps even read a book on a different perspective.
Then what they have, they can just go in there and get that book and then you, and then, you know, continue to read it. And I think getting exposed to all these different ideas. just would have an extremely positive impact. just, you know, on society in general. Cause we. You know, I know with like the advent of social media, it’s very easy to go down a rabbit hole once you start believing in a certain way. And then that’s all the content that you see versus in a library.
you guys, you know, you, you have it all.
When you’re there.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:25:23] do. And unless you can, I mean, you know, unless you expose to other people’s point of view, no matter that you don’t necessarily agree with that. That you learn to be less threatened. other points of views. If you can see it in a safe environment.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:25:39] Yes.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:25:41] And libraries that they play that role. They played a major role and. Presenting points of views.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:25:49] Yeah, and that is, that is absolutely great. For, for anybody who, who is listening, if they wanted to come and check out the library or perhaps, you know, take a look at the virtual courses that you’re, that you offer online, what would be the best way for them to do that?
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:26:06] Well right now, you know, we’re limited in the, what we’re providing in person. That, the best way is to stay up. You know, check out our website. To, which is Detroit public library.org. And to keep up with our programs and services, we are providing. At this time in what we plan to do in the future, once we are, given the green light.
To, open up outdoors in a bigger way.
Cliff Duvernois: [00:26:39] Nice. And for our audience, we will make sure to include all those links in the show notes down below. Joanne. It’s been great. I love talking books. So it’s, it’s been great having you on the podcast today.
Jo Anne Mondowney, Detroit Public Library: [00:26:53] Well, I’ve enjoyed being with you cliff. I really have.