Passing the (Library) Buck in Michigan

February 24, 2010

What was thought last fall to be a reprieve for the Library of Michigan has turned out quite differently, as evidenced by the reaction in some quarters to a February 12 status memo about the downsizing of the Library of Michigan.

Such memos are often received as innocuous blips on a given organization's radar screen—documentation that a previously announced plan is proceeding apace, couched in some rah-rah rhetoric about the team leaders' determination to see the plan through. But this update from the Michigan Department of Education had quite the opposite effect—ironically, because it documents how efficiently MDOE is implementing a 2009 executive order from Gov. Jennifer Granholm to downsize and restructure the state library.

The memo (PDF file) opens with assurances that the library will continue to provide reference research services, maintain physical access to its core collections, and administer the distribution of federal grants and state aid to libraries as well as the popular Michigan eLibrary (MeL). But then the other shoe drops: Instead of continuing to house the genealogy and government documents collection, as well as retaining the library's status in the Federal Depository Library Program, reads the memo, the state library is "committed to ensuring the stewardship" of both collections elsewhere within the state. Also in search of good Michigan library homes are the state library's general, Dewey, and reference collections.

None of this should have come as a surprise since Gov. Granholm's 2009 executive order (PDF file, page 8), as well as a clarifying amendment (PDF file,) charge MDOE and the library with implementing "cost-saving measures designed to reduce expenditures while protecting the core mission of the library [including] eliminating or transferring to other suitable institutions the Federal Documents Depository and the non-Michigan Genealogy collection."

Nonetheless, outrage erupted from several quarters. Officials of the Ann Arbor District Library were noticeably dismayed, and made speculation about the fallout a board-meeting agenda item. According to the February 16 Ann Arbor Chronicle, Director Josie Parker informed her library board that avowed state support for MeL made no mention of funding. "Without that, those resources are gone." she declared.

"We are concerned that this plan will limit access to government information," Grand Valley State University Libraries Head of Collection Development Doug Way emailed American Libraries February 19. Speaking out on behalf of the Government Documents Roundtable of Michigan, he emphasized that in the current economic climate "it is unrealistic to expect a library or a group of libraries to be able to take on the acquisition, processing, management, and maintenance of a collection the size of the Library of Michigan's federal regional depository collection," which, Way added, comprises 1.7 million items.

In assessing the bottom line, Michigan State Librarian Nancy Robertson seems to agree. Citing "the economic realities for the next several years looming," Robertson testified (PDF file) February 18 before the joint appropriations subcommittee on education that the state library and MDOE officials "have had to look long and hard at what we can effectively provide in collections and services as a state library into the future."

What it all boils down to is that some library advocates mistakenly thought that Gov. Granholm had backed down last summer, Robertson explained to American Libraries, enabling the Library of Michigan to go on preserving and making freely accessible “all of its current collections within the building in which they are currently housed." However, Robertson emphasized, "where preservation and free accessibility are to be ensured is never defined [despite] expectations out there in the library community."

It's the fine print that gets you every time.