This month the Library of Michigan celebrates the 20th birthday of its innovative Michigan eLibrary, affectionately known as MeL. One of the country’s earliest electronic libraries, MeL was toasted at a gala on October 4th that brought together scads of fans among residents, libraries, government (state and federal), and the information industry. Companies represented included ProQuest, Gale, LearningExpress, and Innovative Interfaces—all have worked with MeL since its pioneering days as “M-Link” and “Access Michigan.”
Milestone events bring out the nostalgia in us all and the MeL party was no exception, driving our thinking back to pre-Internet days… before we Googled anything, when email was confined to company networks, when we had home phones. The years that followed were filled with debate about the fate of libraries, but none of those potential endings surfaced at the MeL party.
Instead, it was an evening about beginnings; it was a celebration of an infectious vision to do more to connect people with information and improve the service of libraries throughout the state.
OCLC’s George Needham, who was Michigan’s State Librarian during MeL’s early years, saw what he describes as a “perfect storm” of opportunity on the horizon. University of Michigan librarians were tinkering with a project that used something called the “Internet” and shared the idea with their colleagues at the Library of Michigan. Needham and his staff matched this newfangled way of sharing information with library funding initiatives and directed libraries within the state to “go get computers from Gates and the e-rate and we’ll feed you all the content you can eat!”
It was a storm made perfect not just because of opportunity, but because of librarians’ trademark habit of sharing.
The uniquely cooperative nature of librarians has enabled our professional community to go well beyond survival in a wildly competitive environment. MeL, like so many other state systems, neatly co-exists with the Googles and Amazons of the world because it does things they can’t: it saves taxpayer dollars, improves the lives of citizens, and makes other government agencies work more efficiently.
Consider the efficiencies brought by MeL—now under the leadership of State Librarian Nancy Robertson. Through its MeLCat resource sharing system, it has reduced the cost of interlibrary loans from $17 to a $1 per item, enabling small, often rural and isolated libraries to offer their users a wealth of resources within tiny budgets. MeL’s collection of premium databases supports a million full-text article retrievals each year, producing a savings of more than $72 million annually over the cost of individual library subscriptions—$21.80 of value for every dollar spent on MeL annually.
Other government agencies are now relying on MeL to achieve ambitious goals. State Superintendent Mike Flanagan, who leads Michigan’s Department of Education, is leveraging MeL to connect teachers from home, from campus, wherever, with “free, free” resources that will improve schools and strengthen professional development.
Michigan Chief Information Officer David Behen describes MeL as a critical component of Governor Rick Snyder’s “tech readiness” initiative for the State. MeL is now a line item in the Governor’s budget and it will receive an $800,000 increase for 2012-13 budget—an especially significant achievement in Michigan, where state funding is measured out so carefully as the state recovers from a devastating recession.
It could be argued that for-profits can (and do) bring efficiency and savings to governments, but libraries are different because they belong to us all… a point that was made poignantly during the MeL celebration. Tony Baltimore, who works in State Representative Mike Roger’s (R-8) office, asked for the microphone to congratulate MeL. Standing at the podium in the Library of Michigan’s stunning, sun-filled atrium, he said, “I’m from this neighborhood and I watched this library being built. It’s something special and beautiful.” He went on to say that the library’s presence made him feel that his neighborhood was also special because it was home to this spectacular building that belonged to all. “Hats off to you for your vision,” he said with a voice that was filled with pride for what the library—his library—had achieved.
Indeed, hats off to MeL and what it reveals about the library community—that libraries share not only information and resources and efficiencies and best practices, and on and on… libraries invite others to share in the pride of their success.
Lynda James-Gilboe is senior vice-president, marketing and customer care, ProQuest