Commentary
11:09 am
Fri February 3, 2012

Saving Michigan's History

I have on my desk a beautiful, red-bound hardcover book published by our state exactly a century ago. It’s the Michigan Manual for nineteen eleven and nineteen twelve, sort of a one-volume encyclopedia of politics, government and life in our state.

This particular one has beautiful, fold-out maps of railroad line and judicial circuits and photos and biographies of all the state officeholders. I can find out exactly how people voted, or how to get  information about vacant swampland from the state land office.

This is a fascinating book, more than nine hundred pages long, and I bought it at a used book store for a dollar. Michigan has been publishing the Manual every two years since statehood, and I own all of them since eighteen sixty nine. Old timers in Lansing just call it “the red book.“ If you want to research our history, they are a  good place to start. Also on my desk is the most recent Michigan Manual,  published two years ago. Frankly, it isn’t nearly as nice as the century-old version, though I had to pay fifty bucks for this one. To save money, they dropped a lot of information.

While still a beautiful red, it is paperback, and about four hundred pages shorter than the older versions.  Still, it is well worthwhile, and has better pictures than it used to have.

Yet the Michigan Manual is threatened now. Two years ago, with the state rocked by recession, the manual almost didn’t make it into print. They originally intended to publish it only on the internet.  Eventually, the legislative services bureau relented, and published the abbreviated book I have. But while state finances are in better shape now, it isn’t certain a new book will be published.

A few weeks ago, State Senator Steve Bieda of Warren asked the bureau what was happening. He got an e-mail that said they were nearly finished with the online version of the Manual. As for the printed version, it said “it is our intention to do all we can to print the book again,” though that would depend on the budget situation.

So, I talked to John Strand, who heads the legislative services bureau, who confirmed that. Two years ago things were so bad the only way they managed to publish was because Inland Press, which publishes the Detroit Legal News, donated its printing services. Trouble is, the book is a money-loser. The state gives a couple copies each to legislators, and send them to libraries.

But there are only a couple hundred people like me who bother to buy copies. Still, it isn’t that expensive. If you exclude staff time preparing it, Strand said it was maybe five to ten thousand. “I am going to do everything I can to put out a book this year,” he said, adding that he hoped to have a decision within three weeks.

Well, I think not printing the Michigan Manual would be a tragedy and a break with tradition. They managed to publish it during the Great Depression. These books are as much a part of our history as  Petoskey stones. There are cases when you need information bound securely in a book, and not just off in a cloud of electrons.

The Michigan Manual is, most definitely, one of these.