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Notes from the Executive Director – October 2018

Often historical events, when viewed in the rear-view mirror, seem like they had to happen the way they did. The chain of cause and effect seems to have been predetermined. Most of the time, when lived through, it’s not nearly so tidy. So it was with the Dutch Republic at the turn of the 17th century, and so it was in Michigan at the end of the 20th century.

For Allard de la Becq and Jenne Tourett of Amsterdam, who married in 1603, it probably wasn’t at all clear that they were living in a city that was to become the center of worldwide commerce and an economic and military superpower. For Dutch citizens, the 17th century started off with a whole lot of uncertainty. There was a war with Spain. Worry about France’s ambitions. Religious strife. But room for optimism, too. People were generally well-fed. Tolerance for a variety of religions was increasing. Trading in exotic food, drink, and spices from the Middle East and Asia was taking off.

It was a Goldilocks time. Conditions were just right for this little country to come together and become a world superpower. With the combination of the right leaders, an innovative and adventurous spirit, and favorable geography, the Dutch Republic rose to dominance. It certainly wasn’t inevitable. It took everything coming together at that time and in that place for the Dutch to create what we now know as the Golden Age.

In Michigan, conditions at the end of the 20th century were just right for libraries to create a golden age for resource sharing. Libraries, big and small, urban and rural, across the state were talking about big projects to make access to information and library materials easier for every resident. Leaders at the Library of Michigan, the Michigan Library Association, the Michigan Library Consortium, and the Cooperative Directors Association were ready to yoke their organizations together in service of a statewide effort.

A critical piece of the foundation was laid in 1996 when George Needham became state librarian. By the end of 1997, he had seized the opportunity given by changes in federal law to reallocate LSTA funds and sign licenses that gave every Michigan library access, at no charge, to dozens of online databases. That generated huge buzz. There was much speculation about what was next.

What was next was a new state librarian. In 2001, Christie Brandau came to Michigan from the state library in Iowa. A charismatic and dynamic leader, Christie had the perspicacity to say, “We hold the image of outstanding library service which will link all Michigan residents to the information they need, when they need it, where they need it, and in the format they desire.” It was that vision that drove the state to take the next step and create MeLCat. In January 2005, a West Bloomfield Township Public Library patron was the first to hit MeLCat’s “Get this for me!” button. Eleven million loans later, MeLCat is going strong and still growing.

Before MeL (Michigan eLibrary), Michigan’s libraries were a fragmented lot. George and Christie helped everyone envision something different, and out of that came MeL. Hundreds of libraries provide their communities with access to MeL databases, giving them high-quality information resources across a tremendous range of subject areas. MeLCat grew from 22 libraries in January 2005 to 471 participating libraries, pumping through nearly 1.2 million requests annually. From a humble and uncertain beginning, MeL precipitated a golden age of resource sharing among Michigan libraries.

In 2018, MeL has largely become routine and a bit taken for granted. We need to remind ourselves that its success was never inevitable, and is not now guaranteed. MeL only succeeded because a dedicated bunch of people were committed to an overarching vision of library service in the state. Sadly, as demonstrated by the Netherlands, golden ages can come to an end. In Michigan, the resource sharing golden age can collapse, too, unless constant care is taken to keep MeL vital. Without the keys of willing collaboration, continuous innovation, and adequate funding, it could grind to a halt.

It will take constant re-invigoration of the collective will to keep Christie’s vision alive. Let’s not let that vision slip away.