Michigan Historical Center

Jul 302009

A few posts back (“History is Now Officially Bunk“) I suggested that if Gov. Granholm really wanted to establish a Michigan Center for Innovation and Reinvention at what is now the Michigan Historical Center, she should auction the building to the highest bidder, preferably a tax-paying bidder. What could be more innovative and re-inventive than that as a way to build a sustainable Michigan economy? I’d much prefer she’d just let the building continue to serve its current purpose, of course, but if we take her at her word about wanting innovation and reinvention in that building, there could hardly be a better way to accomplish it.

But she will have to hurry. Now we learn that other states are thinking of selling government buildings. If we let other states go first, how will we be able to say we’re being innovative? From ABC News:

It’s the solution that no one wants: selling the buildings at the heart of Arizona’s state legislature. Arizona’s State Senate and House of Representatives buildings are on the list of possible properties that the state could sell to help close a more than $3 billion budget gap next year.

But like other recession-battered states, the Grand Canyon state is desperate to close a huge budget gap — and so the two, 50-year-old buildings home to Arizona’s State Senate and House of Representatives grace the list of possible properties that the state could sell to help close a more than $3 billion budget gap next year. …

Arizona is one of at least a handful of states — including California, Connecticut and Pennsylvania — considering or moving forward with state property sales.

Jul 202009

For a university president to be dissing the study of the past in this way is just wrong. The tone is similar to the anti-intellectualism of Henry Ford when he said, “History is bunk.” Here is the way Ford said it on one of the occasions when he said it:

History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.

Compare that with the following from the MSU student newspaper :

Proposed Monday by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the Michigan Center for Innovation and Reinvention (MCIR) would replace the Michigan Library and Historical Center in Lansing. Under a plan submitted by MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, state library holdings would be moved to the MSU Libraries and the MSU Museum would be consolidated with the State Historical Museum as part of the new center.

The proposal of the center follows an executive order issued Monday by Granholm that abolished the state’s Department of History, Arts and Libraries to balance the state’s budget. It is projected to save $2 million annually. The MCIR would serve as a “visible symbol” of the future of Michigan, Simon said in a letter to Granholm.

“We appreciate the opportunity to share in developing a vision and ‘road map’ for a modern facility that would serve the needs of a modern Michigan,” the letter said.

I can understand the need to save money in these troubled economic times. I don’t see how this proposal accomplishes that if it’s replacing one thing with another. But that’s not my complaint.

My complaint is the attitude that we need to get rid of the library and replace it with something futuristic and modern, that we need to shove the past aside to make way for the new. Because there is no room for the Library of Michigan collections at the current MSU facility. Either new facilities will need to be built, in which case there goes the savings, or they’ll be dumped in some second-rate location where they won’t be very useful to anyone.

I hope that’s not what’s really meant, but it’s hard to know what IS meant by something like a “Center for Innovation and Reinvention.” I guess we won’t hear details until next year, but here’s a suggestion. How about just auctioning the Historical Center to the highest bidder, preferably to some greedy capitalists who will make obscene profits from it, and who will then pay taxes to help sustain Michigan’s economy? What could be more innovative and reinventive than that?

That wouldn’t be my first choice of what to do, but if the library has to go elsewhere, why not?

My first choice would be for the president to help people understand that some of our current social problems have their roots in the past, and that perhaps we should respect the study of the past before planning this wonderful new future she speaks of. You don’t do that by shoving aside the old information and replacing it with new.

There is so much that’s wrong with what is being proposed. I keep thinking it all has to be a huge misunderstanding or a very bad dream. But what we’re reading in the newspapers makes it sound like the spirit of old Henry Ford.

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