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What value can a librarian bring to an emerging small business? That’s an important question for us as we consider the future of a profession in transition. For the past several years, public libraries have concentrated on providing entrepreneurs with meeting space, educational and networking programs, and targeted collections, like books and specialized databases that offer access to market research data.
Those are good and valuable things. But at the Green Garage Urban Sustainability Library, we’re trying to think beyond inviting entrepreneurs into the library (whether physically or digitally) to use collections and attend programs. We’re figuring out how we can embed librarians within emerging businesses to help them succeed. Our team of librarians is intimately involved in the process of growing sustainable businesses in the Green Garage business greenhouse. The work we do emerges from the conversations we have in the greenhouse, and varies based on the unique needs of each business.
Finding new ways to work with business owners and communities in Detroit is an exciting challenge, and we’re looking forward to sharing our experiences with you as we learn and grow. For now, we’d like to tell you a story — what we’ve all agreed is the first great story to come out of our work so far:
It starts with Jason Peet, who’s been doing construction work at the Green Garage for the past year and a half. Jason, a resident of Detroit’s West Village, is developing a sustainable small business called Mend. The idea behind Mend is to reclaim wood from historic Detroit houses slated for demolition and use it to build uniquely designed pieces of furniture. Jason is interested in uncovering information about the former inhabitants of each buildings in order to learn and tell their stories, stories that will in turn become an essential part of each piece. In effect, he’ll be breathing new life into old wood that’d otherwise be discarded, and bringing Detroit’s richly textured history into his customers’ day-to-day lives.
Jason got a chance to put some of the ideas he’s been developing in the business greenhouse into practice when a West Village property owner requested the demolition of a run-down house on Van Dyke. The West Village Neighborhood Association, of which Jason is a member, had to decide whether or not to grant the request to the property owner. (She intends to fill a nearby building with retail outlets and wants to use the lot for parking.) The Neighborhood Association is generally against demolition, urging property owners to renovate their properties instead, but an inspection of the house revealed that it was in such bad shape that the cost of renovation would have been well above its market value. Down, it was decided, the house would come, but not before Jason could get his hands on some of the wood.
In the meantime, Martha Peterson, a Green Garage librarian, history buff, and research fanatic, was busy trying to piece together the story of the house. (It was built around 1880 but extensively modified in the years since.) She’d been a part of Mend’s development sessions, and had identified historical research as the area where she’d be most valuable. (And as something she could do gladly. There’s a rule at the Green Garage, where much of the work is done on a volunteer basis: do what you love.)
She and Jason got started in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library, where they found the massive Polk City Directories, invaluable indexes that list every commercial and residential property in the city and their residents/owners from the late nineteenth century until the 1970s. From the Polks, Martha and Jason made a list of the house’s residents over the years. Martha then used her membership at Ancestry.com to find out more about each of them.
She struck gold with Winfield Dubois (pronounced doo-BOYZ), who was listed on Ancestry simply as an “Engineer – Lakes.” Intrigued, she plugged his name into Google Books and learned from excerpts from a few different books that Dubois was the Chief Engineer of Detroit’s White Star Line. He was also the engineer of the Tashmoo, the line’s flagship steamer (built in 1900) and one of the fastest ships on the Great Lakes.
The Tashmoo, further web searching revealed, was involved in a famous 1901 race on the Great Lakes known as the “Race Between Two Centuries,” a 94 mile run from Cleveland, OH to Erie, PA that pitted the ship against the steamer City of Erie, built in 1898. The Tashmoo didn’t win (in fact, it lost by just 45 seconds), but the race forever cemented its –and Dubois’s– place in regional history.
After uncovering this incredible story, Martha returned to Ancestry and used the site to contact Dubois’s great-grandson, who lives in Ann Arbor and was able to provide her with more information, including a few photos and a 1901 article from the New York Times that refers to the race as “the most noteworthy contest ever sailed on fresh water.”
What a remarkable history was hiding in the walls of that dilapidated West Village house! By piecing it together, Martha has given Jason a great story for his furniture, for sure, but also identified a niche market. Maritime history enthusiasts know Dubois’s name well, and Jason is confident that when he’s ready to build and sell pieces from the house’s wood, he’ll have little trouble finding interested buyers.
So what value can a librarian bring to an emerging sustainable small business? We’re excited to figure that out at the Green Garage, business by business (and librarian by librarian). For Mend (so far) we’ve honed in on historical research as one important contribution we can make. Using a host of resources (most freely available to the public), Martha was able to uncover an exceptional story and identify a promising niche market. Together with other members of the Green Garage community, she’s actively helping Jason develop a business that will keep Detroit’s remarkable history alive by literally reshaping it, piece by piece.
We’re also delighted to report that Jason and some friends are starting a seasonal West Village beer garden near the site of the house. Its name? The Tashmoo Biergarten. The party starts on Sunday, September 25th, and will continue for the following four Sundays, from noon to 9 pm each day at 1416 Van Dyke. See you there!
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