Thursday, July 30, 2009

Save the Library of Michigan

By Janet Brigham Rands

It’s 2,003 miles, or 3,224 kilometers, from here to Lansing, Michigan. When we flew there a few years ago on a genealogy research trip, we stayed in a Lansing motel. Ate in Lansing restaurants. And spent a couple of days at an amazing facility—the Library of Michigan.

A library is more than books, manuscripts, documents, photographs, microfilms, and photocopiers. Even a library with a priceless collection such as the Library of Michigan is more than its holdings: It is librarians and volunteers, and an attitude of reaching out to the broad community of those millions of us who have ties to the Midwest— even those of us in California.

Staff and volunteers at the Library of Michigan have earned a reputation as being unusually responsive and helpful. Before we visited Lansing and spent two days at the library, I visited its Web site to search for information about my Michigan ancestors. The site featured an online chat with a librarian. I used the chat feature to ask about an article that I thought might have been published in a small Michigan newspaper in the 1800s. The librarian turned my inquiry over to the library’s volunteers, who not only found the article but tracked down the other articles in the series.

They soon sent me photocopies of articles recounting the life of my second-great-grandfather. I learned that as a 14-year-old, he served on a privateer ship in the War of 1812. He was nearly killed one night by prisoners he was guarding on the ship, before one of the prisoners took pity on him because the frail, bespectacled boy reminded the prisoner of his own children.

The newspaper was obscure, published only for a short time and not included in any online newspaper archives. I asked the volunteers how to repay their kindness, and they suggested a donation to the library.

Donations weren’t enough, evidently. We were unprepared for the recent news that the governor of Michigan had ordered the library closed, to be replaced by a non-library facility that might bring more traffic to downtown Lansing. This is part of a supposedly budget-cutting move that eliminates the state’s entire Department of History, Arts, and Libraries.

The only group who can save the library from this absurdly draconian fate is the Michigan legislature, which convenes August 5. That morning, genealogy enthusiasts inspired by the Michigan Genealogical Council will stand outside the library and encircle it by holding hands. We wish we could join them.

My second-great grandfather survived the War of 1812 and later moved to Michigan. He never forgot that even as a youngster, he faced imminent death. As the hands of the living encircle the library, we can imagine another circle nearby—a circle of the millions of ancestors whose stories come alive in the Library of Michigan.

The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views of the Silicon Valley Computer Genealogy Group or its members.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

LDS history library: Something old, something new

By Janet Brigham Rands

Something bright and new adorns the crossroads of the West in the shadow of the everlasting hills.

In June 2009, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or Mormons, opened a new historical library and archive in Salt Lake City, Utah, replacing the facility's cramped quarters in the church’s headquarters building for decades. The new Church History Library and Archive is climate-controlled, “green” in design, and accessible. And, for many family history researchers, it is entirely unfamiliar.

This building is separate from the familiar Family History Library – which is nearby – in several regards. First, its collection is completely separate from the holdings of the Family History Library, and covers LDS history and the locales where LDS history has been recorded. Note that this coverage extends far beyond Utah.

Second, its online system is totally separate from that of the Family History Library. In fact, neither catalog is accessible from the other library’s building, which should be an obvious service useful to patrons of both libraries. Even though the two libraries are run by separate departments, their mutual ownership by the LDS Church should mandate some degree of cross-pollination.

Both buildings are near Temple Square in Salt Lake City, although not on the same street. The new Church History Library is on North Temple Street, northeast of Temple Square, and near the church’s relatively new Conference Center. It's also possible that some possible patrons will go to the Museum of Church History and Art instead of the library, and vice versa. Some good signage would address this confusion.

The new facility is friendlier than the old, and research is easier to conduct there. In the old facility, library patrons had to stand in what was sometimes a long line to receive an ID badge, which had to be created anew every day. This was because the headquarters facility had become a secure facility over the years. The new library does not require a badge, and is designed to be welcoming. Although knowledgeable staff are available, patrons are assisted by numerous missionaries whose calling is to make patrons’ library visits productive.

Although patron accessibility is an obvious priority, some materials are housed rather mysteriously. A periodical listed in the catalog as being in the “periodical index” (which translates into “arranged alphabetically by title on the shelves with other periodicals”) was housed not with the periodicals, but with books. This was a conscious decision by library staff “because it’s bound,” we were told by a staff member, although many other periodicals also were bound. It was shelved with a call number that was not listed in the catalog. We assume that these idiosyncratic practices will diminish as patrons require staff help to find the few inscrutably placed items.

Accessing materials in the Reading Room of the library is still awkward, and the library management needs to rethink the process of ordering and distributing materials. In our visits to numerous libraries’ special collections reading rooms, this is the only one that requires staff to peer under a desk and paw manually through rows of retrieved items. Several materials we ordered in our recent visit never were delivered to us, even after we ordered them multiple times. (These were not sensitive materials; one was a history of lace-making in England.) The problem was not in the stacks; it was in the ordering and distribution system.

Also, the facility boasts public access to about $50,000 worth of digital microfilm scanners that purposefully and sadly are being underutilized because of concerns about patrons electronically copying sensitive and copyrighted material. Surely the library management can come up with a way to distribute materials readily, and to send patrons to a reading machine appropriate for the materials. These are issues that should be addressed swiftly, before patrons lose faith and interest in the facility.

Another glitch is the slowness of copying. Many materials not housed in the open stacks are neither rare nor sensitive, but simply are not in much demand. These materials are accessed the same as the rare and sensitive materials, and can be copied only by staff. The wait time for such copies can be as long as a month. We were told this by a staff person who was sitting perhaps 10 feet from several unused copiers. (Think: triage. Or how about, just think!)

We requested that several pages of a book on the history of the Comstock Lode be copied by staff (since the book came from closed stacks, and we could not make copies ourselves). The book is inexpensively available in used book stores and online. Again, the slowness of providing photocopies of such materials is an issue management should address quickly, before the backlog grows even longer and patrons lose patience.

Overall, we were impressed with the facility and with the breadth of its holdings. Clearly, it is a resource that those visiting the Family History Library should visit. Its new online catalog interface is a major improvement, and we were impressed that the system’s architect was openly asking for suggestions. As the new library’s minor bugs are worked out, visiting this facility will be a worthwhile stop on nearly any research trip to Salt Lake City.



The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views of the Silicon Valley Computer Genealogy Group or its members.