The Tigers were on their way to the World Series and homegirl Madonna was climbing the charts when 9-year-old Jack White’s neighborhood branch welcomed politicians, a gaggle of kids, and spokescat Garfield to launch the “Use Your Detroit Public Library” campaign with a city-wide blitz of red pencils including the well-used one that we came across in a life-long booklover’s Detroit attic last summer.
The ordinary red pencil may only be 34 years old, but it’s a direct link to the history of an institution that was responsible for feeding the mind of boy genius Thomas Edison back before he invented the 20th century, and later for some of the greatest work by one the nation’s most acclaimed architects, Cass Gilbert, and funded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
124 years before lasagna loving and Monday hating orange tabby Garfield was yukking it up at the Cass Corridor main branch in the big ‘80s, 13-year-old Grand Trunk Railroad telegrapher Thomas Edison was spending Detroit downtime (and two days’ pay for membership) reading his way through every single book in the library, which was then still just a university-related amenity. He may have died long before these red pencils came on the scene, but Mr. Edison of course would go on to flip all that knowledge into epic inventions we all rely on like, oh, you know — the movies, the lightbulb, home electricity, and recorded music.
Cass Gilbert, the architect responsible for the U.S. Supreme Court Building and New York’s Woolworth Building among many others, jumped into the library’s story in 1913 when Carnegie decided to toss a few hundred grand in library money at Detroit, then bursting with bucks because of Ford and the auto industry. It’s little wonder that the Gilbert-designed main branch that eventually rose on Woodward Avenue in 1921 was an ornate Beaux Arts marble monolith destined to be part of history itself. And indeed, in the tumultuous history of the city, not only would a huge historic collection live there, the National Guard would be deployed to its lawn in 1943 during the city’s other major Civil Rights-era riot.
No one knows for sure if a preteen Jack White ever used a “Use Your Detroit Public Library” pencils doled out by Garfield a few blocks from his family’s home, but we like the idea of him scribbling down proto-White Stripes lyrics with one of these red pencils that literally turned what young Mr. Edison did in his 1860’s freetime into a slogan reminding late 20th century Motor Cityzens of the historic living institution in their midst. —Chris Alan Jones