Burton’s ten

By Joel Thurtell

There are ways of making a buck that can make you a loser.

The Burton Historical Collections at the Detroit Public Library has devised a way to make a buck — actually ten bucks.

But they’ve lost me as a reader.

So big deal, right?

What’s one suburbanite reader more or less? For every malcontent like me, there may be 10 well-heeled readers ready to cough up the charge.

The Burton charges non-city resident readers ten bucks a day to use their materials for research.

I was surprised to learn this. Back in days of yore when I worked for the Detroit Free Press, I never had to pay to do research at the Burton. It didn’t matter then that I lived in Plymouth Township, not the city of Detroit.

I told the desk person my story, and she informed me that under the Burton’s rules, a newspaper writer working on an article doesn’t have to pay the daily fee.

But a member of the general public — like me in my present retired state — has to pay the $10 fee. No matter that I’m doing research for a book or my blog.

I’m still trying to make sense of this policy.

A reporter for a newspaper which presumably is not too strapped for cash to pay the reporter a salary can work in the Burton for free. Very likely, that reporter can even file an expense report and be reimbursed for research costs.

But a retired guy like me, who does not collect a salary from a newspaper, who does not have a company-paid expense account, that researcher has to pay ten bucks a day for the privilege of reading materials that others, regardless of residency, can look at for free.

Ten bucks a day. By itself, the fee adds up. Five days — a week of research — fifty bucks. Then, of course, the City of Detroit charges fees for parking at meters or in parking structures. And there is the cost of gas. My best estimate is that my research at the Burton would cost me at least $20 a day, a hundred a week — and likely more.

Message to the Burton: I am not a newspaper reporter. I am not on salary. I am working on a book. I am just as hungry for knowledge as any salaried newspaper reporter. The acknowledgments page of my book will list the libraries and librarians who helped me with this project.

But that is probably a bit too speculative for you. Instant gratification will not be yours or mine with this project. My book will not appear tomorrow, as would a daily newspaper story.

Oh, I’ve heard the argument about how the Detroit library is hard up for money. So am I. If you’re REALLY so hard up, why let the newspaper reporters off scot free?

Maybe you don’t want to wait a few months or years to receive credit for helping with m project.

Well, then, think of my blog. Joelontheroad.com reaches a handful of readers, or more, and I publish whenever I like. And though JOTR is not a paper newspaper, if you’ve noticed, the old paper papers in Detroit are planning to abandon most of their flammable, inkable medium. Soon, those Detroit Free Press and Detroit News writers may be bloggers just like me.

That’s a good reason why you might not want to place your bets on daily newspapers as a conveyance of publicity, if that is the idea behind letting newspaper reporters escape from your discriminatory $10-a-day fee.

Whatever. I found another library where I can do research all day. I pay for my gas to and from. Parking is free. No daily research charge.

It’s called the Alvin Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan. It’sw in Ann Arbor, half the distance I’d travel to and from the Burton. The Bentley has a wonderful collection of books and records about Michigan history — just what I need.

Ten bucks a day?

Bye-bye Burton.

Hello, Bentley.

Drop me a line at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com

About Joel

Retired 2007 after 23 years as a Detroit Free Press reporter. Thirty years in the news biz. Trained as a historian, never had a Journalism class. At Free Press, wrote many articles about lakes, streams and boats. Wrote more than 80 major stories about the Rouge River. In June 2005 with Free Press photographer Patricia Beck paddled a canoe 27 miles up the Rouge River through Metro Detroit. May be the farthest anyone has canoed up the Rouge, though pioneers used it as a road. Our book, UP THE ROUGE! about the adventure is to be published by Wayne State University Press next year. I'm writing a second book about the Rouge, trying to find out why with billions spent on cleanup, so many American rivers are not fit for humans to touch. DIRTIEST RIVERS will arrive about the time UP THE ROUGE! comes out. I earned a B.A. in history and German at Kalamazoo, graduating in 1967. In 1968, I earned an M.A. in history at the University of Michigan. In 1970, I passed all exams for the doctorate in Latin American history, but have not quite gotten around to finishing my dissertation. I lived in Mexico for a year doing research on a Ford Foundation fellowship. I was a Peace Corps volunteer supervising school and well construction in Togo, West Africa 1972-74. I was a reporter at the South Bend Tribune and editor of the Berrien Springs Journal Era before joining the Free Press in 1984. I've written four novels, four kids' books and in addition to the two Rouge books am completing a journalism text called SHOESTRING REPORTER: A MANIFESTO FOR SAVING JOURNALISM OR HOW I GOT TO BE A BIG CITY REPORTER WITHOUT GOING TO J SCHOOL AND HOW YOU CAN DO IT TOO!
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4 Responses to Burton’s ten

  1. Lessenberry says:

    The Burton discrimination thing would make for a great ACLU case, methinks.

    Jack

  2. Adam says:

    Wow, that ‘outsider’ tax is pathetic. Detroit is shrinking at such an incredible rate that urban areas are actually being converted back to farmland(http://www.sltrib.com/ci_11226284), and the City has the gall to allow taxes on those who dare to venture in.
    I seem to remember that there is also some kind of income tax for those who work in the city and live elsewhere. What’s the word for the opposite of an incentive?
    There has been recent effort to draw folks to the city, with new museums, Ford field and the new Comerica Park, and the Super Bowl event a couple years back.
    But it seems rather presumptuous at this point to assume that people want to be in the city so badly that they’ll pay outsider taxes.
    (of course, one possibility is that Detroit is in such dire straits that it sees no other way to survive than to levy these taxes, which is truly ironic because these taxes may end up being the final nail in the coffin–scaring new industry away, encouraging potential citizens and visitors to look elsewhere)

  3. Kelly says:

    This fee has been in place for a few years – back when the state gave Detroit Public Library funds and designated it a state treasure anyone could use the library’s services. I lived in Farmington Hills but used the Parkman branch in Detroit exclusively. When the state funding was cut they put in the fee – $300 I think for a year – it’s a hefty chunck of change that stopped me and many others from using it. Also it stops Detroit residents from being able to check out items from other libraries in the suburbs or even Hamtramck.

  4. quiller says:

    Another good Ann Arbor library is the William L. Clements graduate library, with a lot of early Michigania in its holdings. Parking in the area is exorbitant, but if you’re willing to park on the street a few blocks away, and hike, it costs you only for gas and time.

    Off-topic: a lovely Detroit Went And Died On Us tale, from The Weekly Standard….

    http://weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/015/945aynyk.asp

    Best wishes for 2009 from one of your allegedly-only-a-handful.

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