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.

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