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The Detroit Public Schools Book Depository

The New Book of Knowledge
I can’t stop looking at the Sweet Juniper blog today. Everyone knows about Detroit (about Michigan, really – Flint and beyond). In terms of industry, in terms of economy and downfall and poverty, it is held up time and again as an example of how things were, what happened, and how things are now. And this is, for a booklover, for anyone who believes in education and the promise of the future and rebuilding, a most poignant and troubling example.

The Detroit Public Schools Book Depository.

I’m at a loss to put into words the awe and disbelief I felt even going through the images, and reading the accompanying text. The decay, wastefulness, neglect and even evil, I would go so far to say – that is revealed as I read further in the story is shocking. So I will let the words of the blogger, who was actually there and has done the research and the project and the walk-throughs – explain.

“This is a building where our deeply-troubled public school system once stored its supplies, and then one day apparently walked away from it all, allowing everything to go to waste. The interior has been ravaged by fires and the supplies that haven’t burned have been subjected to 20 years of Michigan weather. To walk around this building transcends the sort of typical ruin-fetishism and “sadness” some get from a beautiful abandoned building. This city’s school district is so impoverished that students are not allowed to take their textbooks home to do homework.”

The building has been abandoned, ignored, left to waste away, full of school supplies, mountains of books, pallets of unopened textbooks and workbooks rotting and sinking.


There has been fire and flood. Homeless people, squatters, prostitutes, scavengers and people looking to document the enormity of the problem (like sweet-juniper) are the only people who make use of the building. Once there was a corpse found, frozen in ice at the bottom of an elevator shaft. There are mushrooms, trees, plants growing from the rotting matter of the books and supplies. There are broken and spilled bottles of chemicals, presumably intended for school chemistry labs.

Reading/looking, all I could think was WHY? What could have happened, and how on Earth can it still be left that way?

Again, in the blogger’s own words:

“So in the end, the answer to why this happened is long and complicated. In the briefest possible terms: there was a fire, and no one knows why no one saved what could be saved, and then a man bought the building and let it rot so he could keep making billions of dollars. There is no future for these supplies or books, other than to decay and provide nourishment for the trees and plants that will eventually take over this building. What has surprised me when I’ve visited this site is how little things have decayed over the past twenty years. Textbooks exposed to the elements for years still smell like the textbooks you remember from school. You can still read every page.”

And the part that best summed up my own feelings, having read and looked and wondered:

“Someday the books will tumble from the shelves at the Bodleian and there will be no one to replace them. Someday even sooner than that, books themselves may become an anachronism, like scrolls or cuneiform tablets. It is the book lover, I think, who is most pained by these images. Even as we sit here at our computers, we pine for the feeling of pressed pulp between our fingers. We have a hard time accepting that all our words and knowledge might one day feed the trees.”

If you’re interested at all, be sure to check out the posts sweet-juniper has written about the depository, here, and here, and here. And be sure to check out the videos and the photos. It’s a fascinating project.

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