MeL Turns Twenty

Michigan's innovative electronic library is toasted in the state capital

October 9, 2012

Before Google, before Amazon, before Netscape, IE, or Bing, before the New York Times ever printed the phrase World Wide Web, there was the Michigan eLibrary. Known as MeL for short, this pioneering statewide information network is celebrating its 20th anniversary in October. The milestone was marked by a gala event October 4 that gathered hundreds of supporters from its user community, government, publishing, and libraries—including State Librarian Nancy Robertson and her predecessors George Needham and Christie Brandau, along with IMLS Director Susan Hildreth—at the stunning Michigan Library and Historical Center in Lansing.

Needham was Michigan state librarian at a time when, he said, a “perfect storm” of opportunity occurred. In 1992, a small project at the University of Michigan showed promise as a vehicle for providing statewide distribution of information through something new called “the Internet.” Concurrently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began funding computer labs for libraries, and affordable internet access was about to become available through a program called the e-rate. Needham remarked to guests at the gala, “It opened doors to work with all kinds of libraries. We told them ‘Get computers from Gates and the e-rate and we’ll give you all the content you can eat.’”

MeL has been a pace-setting resource for Michigan’s libraries and residents ever since. Full of free premium databases that support small businesses, job search, and homework, Michigan residents are automatically authenticated when they log on to the databases, eliminating barriers to using the content. It has routinely attracted the attention of the tech world as a model of efficiency. In 2002, PC Magazine’s John Dvorak claimed MeL was “an astonishing site. It puts Michigan at the top of the heap for providing its citizens with an amazing information portal far superior to most commercial sites. It makes you want to move to Michigan (well, almost).”

Indeed, MeL has been embraced by Michiganders and 415 participating MeLCat libraries that represent public, academic, and special libraries of all types. Each year the site facilitates more than a million requests for materials to be shared statewide via MeLCat, MeL’s alternative to interlibrary loan. Hildreth, who follows MeL’s success through its LSTA funding reports, told the crowd that as early as 2005 MeLCat was sharing materials for as little as $1 per item, compared with an estimated interlibrary loan cost of $17–$30 per item. “Not only does MelCat provide a patron-initiated wealth of materials for smaller participating libraries, it is also providing it on a cost basis they can afford,” she said.

MeL’s centerpiece—its collection of premium databases— supports a million full-text article retrievals each year, producing a savings of more than $72 million annually over the cost of individual library subscriptions—$21.80 of value for every dollar spent on MeL annually. The savings have been critical to supporting libraries and residents as the state rebuilds its economy.

What’s ahead? MeL is now a line item in Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget and it will receive an $800,000 increase for the 2012–2013 budget. Michigan Chief Information Officer David Behen explains that MeL is a critical component of the governor’s “tech readiness” initiative for the state.

Robertson has big plans for the new funding. “Thanks to this new state-funded boost to MeL, we plan on adding a business and jobs database, and possibly an early literacy database; we are revamping the MeL front page and website; and we will be incorporating a Google-like single-search box for easier use of MeL going forward. There is still lots to do to keep it going and growing!”

BETH DEMPSEY is with the Dempsey Communication Group based in Novi, Michigan.