Jul 162009

Back in 1951 a misguided government worker set a fire in Michigan’s State Office building. He thought a minor crime would keep him from being sent to military service in Korea.  The fire got out of hand and destroyed some of the state’s archives. The arsonist was sent to Jackson Prison instead of Korea.

In 1988 Michigan finally got a proper place to put its collections, in the Michigan Library and Historical Center. The building houses the state library, the state archives, and a museum. I’ve made use of all three. In the library there are books that are labeled with a note saying they were damaged in the 1951 fire.

But now, the collections are again threatened by a misguided government worker. Governor Jennifer Granholm has signed an executive order to eliminate the Michigan Department of History, Arts, and Libraries. Like the draft-evading schmuck in 1951, she only wants to do a little damage. Details are sketchy (a problem in itself) but it seems she wants to transfer the programs to other departments and replace the library with a “Michigan Center for Innovation and Reinvention.”

At the same time, the governor announced a new initiative to replace the current Library of Michigan with a new entity called the Michigan Center for Innovation and Reinvention. That initiative will come about in partnership with the city of Lansing and Michigan State University, which will receive most of the collections from the current library. (URL)

It’s not impossible that some reorganization wouldn’t be a good thing, but this plan so far doesn’t seem to be very well thought out. Here are some problems:

  • What the new entity will really be will not be known for some time, but the legislature has only a short time to act on the order abolishing the old. It’s like a salesman saying he’ll take your old car on a trade-in now and sell you something new, but isn’t going to tell you until later what the new one will be.
  • If the MSU Library gets the collections, where is it going to put them? (I make a lot of use of MSU’s library, too.) The stacks are crowded, and it now uses remote storage, which is also full. It doesn’t have archival facilities. MSU is going to need new buildings and new parking. How is that going to save money?
  • Yes, the State of Michigan could outsource its collections to other entities, and MSU would probably a good one to handle them. They already share a card catalog. But it would still need a State Librarian to look after its interests in government documents and archives, at least. The University’s interests are not exactly the same as the State’s.
  • The Library of Michigan is in part like a public library. Merging a public library with a university library would not be an easy thing to do. I’m not sure what the track record of such a merger is, or whether there even is a track record for such a thing.

And finally, this whole thing seems to be a matter of the state government relinquishing a role that cannot be fulfilled by a non-government entity–a role which has been performed reasonably well up to now–and replacing it with a role that governments don’t handle very well.

A “Center for Innovation and Reinvention”? Innovation and reinvention are not the sorts of things that are done in “centers”. Research can sometimes be done in centers, but that’s a different thing. A government center is usually where political favors are handed out and cronies (or would-be cronies) are nurtured. Innovation needs to be done away from government. There is an important role for government to play in nurturing innovation, but establishing a “center” is not it. Rounding up innovators and putting them in a center reminds me of this Steve Martin routine:

And now, let’s repeat the Nonconformists’ Oath:
I promise to be different!
[audience] I promise to be different!
I promise to be unique!
[audience] I promise to be unique!
I promise not to repeat things other people say!
— Steve Martin, A Wild And Crazy Guy