Monday, August 3, 2009

Madness Monday: The Library of Michigan

I'm just back from a wonderful trip to Washington, D.C. Not only do I have lots of new information for my own research projects, I also have lots of new material for this blog. After talking with several of the reference specialists at NARA and reading all the material on the status of the Library of Michigan, I've decided that my Madness Monday blogs are going to cover some of the problems that make me angry, not those ancestors who drive me mad. If you have not read about the potential decimation of the wonderful Library of Michigan, Shirley Gage Hodges' article, Crisis Facing the Library of Michigan, is an excellent starting point.

I've always loved researching at the Library of Michigan. The building is beautiful, there is ample parking, and the collection is amazing. I love their microfilm newspaper collection. None of the online newspaper sources come close to the coverage provided at the Library of Michigan. When I visit, I frequently spend two days working through the newspapers alone! Their website, Michigan History, Arts & Libraries, could serve as a model for many states. What will happen if this Michigan treasure is decimated? Michigan's governor expects to save about two million dollars per year. I don't know how many out-of-state researchers go to Lansing each year, but if one assumes approximately ten each week spending five days in the library and archives, all spending what this fiscally conservative blogger does on a research trip, the state of Michigan will lose about one million tourist dollars per year. Where is the savings here? The state will also lose a lot of prestige in research circles that include librarians and historians, as well as genealogists.

What does it mean for genealogists? Even assuming all the material is preserved - and that is still in question - it's likely to be scattered among several repositories, the bulk perhaps going to the MSU library. Although my experience is limited, I can't say I've been completely happy with some of my research trips to areas that have done this. Here are two examples.

Original records in Wisconsin can be found in various Area Research Centers. I planned a research trip to Grant County, Wisconsin, several years ago. Of course, I did a lot of homework before I went. Given the fact that the Area Research Center for this region is housed in the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, I expected - and got - less than perfect parking. I wrote ahead for more details about the hours of access and asked questions about some collection specifics. The response gave me the incorrect hours and incomplete information on the collection specifics. The actual hours were much fewer than my informant stated, and I discovered that some of the resources I requested were actually located at two other Area Research Centers. Reference services varied depending on the person present, and some of these people were less than knowledgeable about the holdings. After two days, I decided my time might be better spent on another project at the Minnesota State Archives, so I headed to Minneapolis for the rest of my vacation.

Not too long ago, I was able to spend a brief time on my Madison County, Kentucky, problems. Rather than heading to Frankfort for the day, I decided to visit the collection at the Eastern Kentucky University library archives in Richmond. Given the limited time I had, this was not a bad decision. I might have found it frustrating, though, if I were spending a week at that repository. Parking was abominable, I knew more about the collection than the first reference provider I spoke to, and the hours were very limited. There was only one microfilm reader providing access to the valuable county records, but fortunately, I was the only visitor interested in those records. Of course, my perception was also colored by the fact that it was absolutely pouring the entire day and my planned cemetery visit was washed out.

Historical records are extraordinarily diverse, and those responsible for preserving these records and providing access are respected scholars in their own right. The citizens of Michigan and the professionals at the Library of Michigan deserve better from their elected officials. I can't be in Lansing on Wednesday to participate in "Hands Around the Library," but like thousands of researchers, I'll be thinking of everyone there.

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