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Books at Highland Park high school get tossed out - How could they have done it differently?

Courtesy Paul Lee

There has been public outrage ever since a collection of African-American history materials were found in a dumpster outside Highland Park's high school. The ACLU of Michigan was one of the first to report the incident.

Michigan Radio’s Stateside team recently reported on the materials found in the dumpster, interviewing a local historian who helped assemble the collection, and the emergency manager of Highland Park schools, Donald Weatherspoon.

Weatherspoon explained that the Highland Park Renaissance Academy was in the process of cleaning, organizing, and securing the collection in the district's media center. Throughout this process, books and materials that were in a deteriorating state, he said, were discarded.

The collection is currently being cataloged, and while it will eventually be open to the public, Weatherspoon emphasized that this is not a public library.

But according to local historian Paul Lee, the collection is more than an ordinary school library.

“It favorably compares with a good community college library […] and the core of [the collection] was black history and culture”

Lee went on to explain the importance of this particular collection in the Highland Park community.

“In the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the wake of the modern Civil Rights and Black Power movement, black communities throughout the United States began requesting that their school districts incorporate what was then called 'black studies,'” he explained.

Lee continued:

“The reasoning was that many African Americans, especially young persons, were doing damage to themselves and others because they lacked a sense of value. Black studies was designed to build a sense of self-esteem and self-worth. The essential idea was that if they respected themselves, they’d respect others. That was the genesis of this library.”

Given the local importance of this collection, but also the need for the district to sort through it, we wondered how libraries usually go through their collections.

The case at the Highland Park Renaissance Academy might be exceptional.

The school system does not have a librarian, so the collection was not handled in a traditional manner.

But we spoke with someone who is an expert at managing collections at the University of Michigan library system.

Charles Ransom is the librarian at U of M who focuses on the African American Studies, Native American Studies, Asian American Studies, and Latino Studies research and technology guides.

He explained how a library collection is typically “weeded.”

Usually prompted by the need to create space, to move a collection, or update an old collection, books go through a kind of triage process.

First to be discarded: damaged books – especially those that are not easily repaired – are the first to go

Next to be sorted out: books that have not been checked out in several years

Finally: if the collection has a particular theme, then books that are judged not to adequately fit that theme are discarded or removed. This is especially true if the book is quite old and the information is outdated.

And how are books typically disposed of?

Ransom says that public university libraries typically throw away books or donate them to other countries (if they are not outdated or damaged), but books are never sold because legally, books bought with public funds cannot be sold.

According to Jan Ellis at the Michigan Department of Education, however, public school libraries do not have set standards on how to discard library collections.

Highland Park is a majority black city and school system so the collection that was dismantled was of special importance to the community.

Ransom noted that – unsurprisingly – the way in which these types of special collections are disposed of says something to the community. It's clear some in the community do not like the message.

- Julia Field, Michigan Radio Newsroom

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