DETROIT – When Disa Bryant needed a place to live, she found a home away from home at the Detroit Public Library.
Libraries have long been repositories of knowledge, mostly through archiving and lending books, and places to go during summer break.
Now libraries are helping people find housing, jobs and start new lives.
Bryant credits the Detroit library’s Parkman branch — a place she visited as a young girl with her aunt — with saving her when she was homeless: Librarian Annette Lotharp told her about a housing program and put her in touch with a counselor who found her shelter and, within a year, her own house to rent.
“It was a sad story, initially, but then it ended up being a happy ending,” Bryant said as she told her story in a quiet corner of the stately branch off Oakman Boulevard in Detroit. “The library had a big part in my success.”
Bryant, who is divorced and raising a teenage daughter, said she did her best to make ends meet. The 51-year-old graduated from high school, attended college, and worked a variety of mostly temporary positions in customer service.
Still, the single mother said she also suffered from ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that would flare up and make it difficult to work.
In 2015, she got sick, missed too many days at the Detroit Employment Solutions Corp., and lost her job. She fell behind on her property taxes, lost her home, and moved in with her sister. Then, she became depressed. But, the library, Bryant said, gave her a place to go.
There, she and her daughter could study. Bryant focused on completing her college degree, which she eventually earned from ITT Technical Institute. Her daughter got homework help. Bryant also used the internet to find a job.
“You could stay all day,” she said. “That was such a godsend to me.”
When American libraries started nearly 300 years ago, books were the focus because bound publications were expensive, rare and difficult to get, said Pam Smith, president of the Public Library Association. For the good of society, book owners lent their treasures. By the 1900s, steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie built more than 2,500 libraries. He believed books could give ordinary people the knowledge they needed to work.
There are now nearly 119,500 libraries in the United States — including public, academic, school and government, according to the American Library Association. To thrive, Smith said, public libraries need to offer more than books.
A 2014 ALA report, “The State of America’s Libraries,” identified “community engagement” as a top priority for modern libraries, to address “current social, economic, and environmental issues. In other words: Help people who are struggling.
Nationwide, some libraries are employing full-time counselors. In March, the Public Library Association conference in Philadelphia held a session, “A Social Worker Walks Into a Library,” with presenters from Washington D.C., San Francisco, Denver and Georgetown, Texas, who had hired social workers.
Others offer free lunches, arts and crafts classes, reading programs, even dance lessons.
Still, library directors say that, to add such services, they must make the case to elected officials, donors, and taxpayers who fund them. “We have to show we are serving the public and how we are serving them,” said Devan Green, Pontiac library director. “You have people say, ‘You don’t need the library,’ but that’s not true.”
In Detroit, Bryant — who now has a house within a few miles of the Parkman branch — said she and her 13-year-old daughter still frequent the library.
“It’s kind of relaxing just to come to the library to get a book and to have an adventure by reading it, by expanding your mind and thinking,” Bryant said. “I was so happy to be at the library because it was so warm, like being with family.”