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Library of Michigan ‘Goes GM’

by Bill Castanier
July 18, 2011

“Going once, going twice, gone to the man with the white Mac.”

Well, there won’t be an auctioneer’s gavel, but the Library of Michigan is in the process of disposing of more than 75,000 books from its collections. The books are being auctioned at MiBid Internet Auction, the state’s online auction site for surplus materials and equipment.

Rare book dealers who follow these things believe that the sale is the largest number of books to be sold at one time in Michigan. The sale includes what is called the “Dewey” collection and another estimated 7,500 books deemed superfluous and culled from Library collections.

But before buyers get too excited, the state’s chief librarian, Nancy Robertson, wants to caution buyers that rare books and books that augment the “Michigan collection” were removed prior to the sale.

The sale began a little over three weeks ago when the first lots of several thousand books pertaining to philosophy and psychology were sold. There you could find books by and on Nietzsche, Niebuhr and the like. The sale only attracted a couple bidders, who walked off with the books for a few hundred dollars for each of the three lots.

Robertson wants to remind people, however, that if the books weren’t being sold at auction, the Library would have to pay for disposal, which is costly. As an example, for just one lot of philosophy books it would have taken more than 50 boxes that would have had to be filled and moved. Books sold at auction must be removed by the buyers.

To help understand why the collection is being sold, you have to travel back in time to the 1880s, when the Library began to obtain the books. During that period the Library of Michigan collected broadly and then circulated books across the state, especially to rural areas where there were no libraries. The Library served as a sort of backstop for knowledge, even packing wooden boxes of books that were sent across the state to be loaned. Called the Traveling Library, a collection of books was available on request to citizens (typically 25 or more).

A collection of 50 books organized in oak cases was sent to groups such as the Grange and women’s clubs. According to an article in Michigan History Magazine, the books were roughly 20 percent fiction and 80 percent books on religion, science, history, biography and the classics. In addition, some groups requested specific topics such as French literature or Shakespeare.

For convenience, shelving and retrieval, librarians used what was called the Dewey Decimal System to organize the books on shelves. The system called for books to be arranged or sorted by 10 classes, then 10 divisions and then 10 sections within the divisions, for a total of 1,000 sections.

When Melvil Dewey invented the classification method in 1876, it was considered the body of all knowledge at the time. In the early 1980s, the Library of Michigan moved to the Library of Congress Classification system, starting a new collection from scratch. And since the original Dewey collection was never integrated into the new classification system, it became a virtual orphan.

So why are the books being sold? Robertson said the Library of Michigan is refocusing its mission due both to budget cuts and change in philosophy. She said the Library, which was formally established in 1828, nine years before statehood, will now focus on the Michigan collection and books that relate to public policy.

However, Robertson feels like most librarians do about the collection: “I really love that collection.”

But she compared the Library to GM sloughing off unpopular brands by saying, “They are not making Pontiacs [anymore]. We need to be more innovative and adventurous.”

Of course, not all librarians are happy about this sale. For many it is symbolic and sentimental, representing an end of an era, akin to throwing out those high school keepsakes. It also represents to many librarians an assault on the essence of the library system, especially when it is happening at the state’s top library.

One librarian told me, “We buy books, we don’t sell them.”

Not to be trite, but libraries have a long history and tradition. It’s thought that the first library was started more than 2,200 years ago in Alexandria, and that at one time the Alexandria library held more than 700,000 volumes. Invaders would often sack libraries and carry home books as booty.

Today, libraries across the state still have a booty problem — there simply is not enough of it. Recently, the Detroit Library, facing a shortfall of $4 million in tax revenue, laid off more than 80 workers. Libraries, which for the most part are funded by local millages and either reside within city governments or school districts, are grimly facing declining tax revenue.

Libraries in cities such as Troy are set to close and are facing do-or-die millage elections. The Library of Michigan faced similar prospects. Beginning in the Granholm era and fueled by the explosion of online search engines, which seemed to give us access to every piece of information available, the administration and the legislature circulated proposals to severely cut back the Library of Michigan, including packing up and moving the state’s premier genealogy collection.

That collection was ultimately saved, to the delight of thousand of “genies” who fought hard to preserve the collection. However, that collection will no longer be expanded by purchases or gifts.

Another collection, of federal documents, also will be allowed to lapse. In addition, the Library budget was cut more than $1 million, resulting in layoffs and the end of a system that included circulating books to other libraries across the state. Now, only the legislature and state employees are allowed to check out Library of Michigan books. At one time the Library employed more than 130. It is currently staffed with just over 30 workers.

Caught in the middle of all this was the Dewey collection, which in the last several decades has seen little or no use.

A visit to the fourth floor of the Library of Michigan, where the Dewey collection is currently housed, finds a stark collection of books neatly shelved in 59 rows. It is eerily quiet even for a library, and often a security guard is the only other person walking this portion of the floor.

Walking up and down the rows, you are presented with books on every conceivable subject, albeit some a little esoteric (Who Put the Bomb in Father Murphy’s Chowder?). And as we say goodbye to America’s space program, a veritable history of the nation’s rocket program sits on a shelf, residing with books on trains and boats and planes.

Maybe no one has written a song to the Dewey system, but one of the state’s most honored poets and authors, Thomas Lynch of Milford, has written a poetic ode to libraries. Michigan’s literary undertaker (Lynch is a mortician) said that libraries are the literary equivalent of cemeteries.

“Libraries are among our most important places — they host our best game,” he said, explaining how all authors want the best book they published in a library. “It outlives them,” he said.

He also likened libraries to a Methodist Church social, where “everyone brings their best dish to pass.”

Lynch is just one of many authors who have a love affair with libraries. Book author and Michigan Court of Appeals Judge William C. Whitbeck always tells audiences at book events, “The best gift my mother ever gave me was a library card.”

In bygone days it wasn’t unusual to see library patrons spending hours browsing. Now patrons go online to browse and reserve books. All very efficient, but that’s part of the reason the Dewey collection has been deemed superfluous and is being auctioned off.

Before being set for auction, state librarians culled the collection for rare books and books that would augment the genealogy collection and the Michigan collection. For example, books on the Civil War or books by or about Hemingway were removed prior to sale.

In addition, the collection was opened to all public libraries and university and college libraries across the state with the offer to take what they could use. Only a few boxes were hauled away. Even after the sale, the Library will still hold an estimated 1.4 million titles. The Michigan collection will hold more than 78,000 titles.

Even though the collections were culled it doesn’t mean there aren’t some gems among the stacks. Nestled among obscure tracts, one is likely to find some exquisite histories of early 1800s expeditions to Africa or South America, along with very nice poetry, arts and architecture sections.

Programs like Antique Road Show have us all hoping there is a priceless collectible among the stacks. It’s not likely there’s the Gutenberg equivalent, but if there is, it’s certainly not hidden. Complete lists and details of each book are online, which makes the auction fair to everyone, according to Don Todaro, deputy state librarian overseeing the sale.

Ray Walsh, owner of Curious Book Shop and Archives Book Shop in East Lansing, has more than 40 years experience in the rare book business, which has made him conservative in his appraisal of books. He says there may be some finds in the sales, but he cautioned that you are buying the entire lot and are responsible for packing, moving and disposal.

He also pointed out that all of the books have library Dewey numbers imprinted on their spine, a large percentage have been rebound, library stickers are on the inside of each book and many were damaged during a fire and show watermarks. (In 1951 a fire swept through the State Office Building, destroying 20,000 books and damaging another 30,000.) All these conditions seriously drop the resale value of the books, according to Walsh.

“It certainly is an eclectic mixture of material and certainly one of the largest collections ever sold in Michigan,” Walsh said.

He said the sheer number of books makes it a challenge for a book dealer. “There are books of interest, but I really don’t need a thousand religion books.”

In addition, the large lots make the purchase beyond most people’s means, he said.

According to Todaro, the auction will run through the fall, and new lots of books, broken down by Dewey classification system, will be posted about every eight days. The current auction ends July 20 and winning bidders must have paid for the books and removed them by July 29. Also, anyone wanting to inspect the books must call Todaro at 517.373.2583 to make an appointment.

Walsh said the books might be a good opportunity for an online seller. He estimates that a possible 10 out of 100 books might be able to be sold online or in a bookstore, with the rest making their way to resale shops.

That’s the good news. Most of the books will likely find their way back into circulation at used book stores, in private collections or end up at resale shops.

Winning bidders will be given stickers for the books they buy stating the books are…withdrawn from circulation.

Bill Castanier, a retired state government administrator and Michigan State University advertising graduate, writes a weekly literary column for Lansing City Pulse and manages the blog mittenlit.com, a daily look at Michigan literature and authors. He also is a member of the Michigan Notable Book selection committee and the board of MSU Press.

July 18, 2011 · Filed under Bookit Tags: , ,

35 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Stephanie Whitbeck // Jul 19, 2011 at 6:52 am

    No one should ever try to keep a secret about Michigan books from Bill Castanier.

  • 2 Michele Strasz // Jul 23, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Libraries closing, selling books, laying off staff. Borders closing, selling books, laying off staff.
    Schools closing, cannot buy books, laying off staff.
    70% of Michigan 3rd graders cannot read at grade level.
    Any one see a pattern here? Anyone care?

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