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From the Basement to the Bentley
Sifting through one of the many boxes that hold the athletic department archives at the University of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library you get a sense of the remarkable asset that is housed within the library walls. You can't help but be moved after viewing a note written by legendary coach Fielding Yost, or holding a coaching contract signed by baseball pioneer Branch Rickey. This is a special place.
Did you know that the meticulously organized archives of photos, letters, journals and films weren't always delicately preserved within this campus institution? In fact, just a few decades ago the collection resembled something of a mess with portions of it at risk of being lost forever.
One of Bruce Madej's duties when hired as sports information director by then athletic director Don Canham in 1982 was to manage the history of the U-M athletic department. Looking back at the situation today, Madej admits, "I'd be the last person I'd put in charge of the history of the athletic department."
One of Madej's immediate concerns was the preservation of the program's scattered historical materials. "Everything was stored in a basement at that time and we had floods down there," Madej remembers. "That did not bode well for photographs or old articles or anything like that. Our films were literally in a pile."
"I took a look and thought, ‘This stuff is going to rot!' It was awful." Madej knew something needed to be done.
He drafted a memo suggesting the department bring in an archivist to help organize the materials. Madej also recommended pursuing a partnership with an institution well-versed in the preservation of the university's historical archives: U-M's Bentley Historical Library.
Unfortunately the ideas outlined in the memo didn't catch on with Canham. But as Madej explains, those were different days. "You've got to remember, people never understood the need for the archival of information back then. There weren't the ESPNs when Don Canham started. There was a whole different idea of publicity."
Madej's idea had to wait but that didn't stop him from taking action. He made it a priority to clean up and organize what they had. He brought in Dave Mann, a student whose father was a librarian, to help develop a system that helped get a handle on what was there, and more importantly, how to retrieve it.
As time passed the demand for the historical information increased and Madej knew they needed a better solution. "It was getting more difficult," he recalls, "and again I brought up the idea of getting an archivist. But Don didn't really have an interest in it."
Canham retired in June 1988, replaced by Bo Schembechler who left just two years later to join the Detroit Tigers as team president. Long time University administrator Jack Weidenbach was tapped to become the new Michigan athletic director.
Weidenbach had a close familiarity with the U-M library system. As director of business operations, he told me he "built a lot of libraries," and in doing so developed a keen understanding and fondness for the school's historical collections.
When Weidenbach moved to the athletic department he witnessed the challenges of retrieving information. "So many outside media who wanted information, it had to be correct and we needed the ability to dish it out pretty rapidly," he recalls.
Madej now had a critical advocate and remembers the pivotal day when the new athletic director called him. "He said, ‘Bruce, tomorrow we're going to go see Fran Blouin down at the Bentley Library, would you like to go along with me?'" Madej was excited about the prospect of the meeting because, as he told me, "I wanted to present my idea that I had almost ten years earlier."
Soon after they drove up to north campus to meet with Blouin, the director of the Bentley. When they sat down for the meeting, Weidenbach had a surprise for Madej.
"You wouldn't believe it," Madej recalls. "Weidenbach pulled out that memo from years back that I had sent to Don Canham. He slid it over to Fran Blouin and asked, ‘What do you think?' Fran thought it was a great idea."
While it was agreed to form a partnership, there was still a question of where the collection would reside: at the athletic department or at the library.
To Blouin and the team at the Bentley, the right choice was clear. "Given the informality around how people were used to accessing and working with the materials over at the athletic department," Blouin told me, "I really didn't think there would be any long term solution that we could provide if the materials stayed there."
"The Bentley Library is the archive for all of the university," says Blouin. "We have the archives of all the schools and colleges, institutes, housing, student organizations and so on. It just made sense that the archives of the athletic department should be here also."
With Weidenbach's support, it was agreed to house the entire collection at the Bentley.
Photo: Left to right, Kinney, Weidenbach and Madej viewing a preserved 19th century photo from the Michigan baseball collection at the U-M Bentley Library. Credit: Greg Dooley
The wheels were set in motion but the Bentley needed to find the right person to manage the archives. That key position was filled by Greg Kinney, an archivist at the library since 1986 who held masters degrees from Michigan in history and in information and library studies.
As a demonstration of its commitment to the collection, the athletic department agreed to directly fund half of the archivist position. "As far as we know," Kinney told me, "we're the only athletic department that provides direct support for a position like this. Other places, like at Ohio State, the athletic department provides general money to the archives or to the library, but it's not a permanent arrangement."
With the agreement in place, a team was assembled relocate the collection. Kinney recalled those days. "About a dozen of us went over did a survey of offices, attics, and basements across campus to get a sense for what was there."
During those trips the relocation team witnessed some of the horror stories Madej viewed years earlier. Many of the old scrapbooks would literally crumble in your hands. Many of the early films were nitrate-based and potentially combustible actually requiring HAZMAT teams to handle them.
It took nearly three years for Kinney and team to move the bulk of the collection to the Bentley.
As the materials were settling into its new home, skepticism lingered back at the athletic department. "I can tell you point blank that Will Perry, the former sports information director, couldn't believe we moved it out because everybody believed in having controls," Madej recalls.
But Madej says it didn't take long to turn the detractors, like Perry. "Years later, when Will was trying to do some research he came to my office and said, ‘That might have been one of the best things you've ever done.'"
Blouin maintains that Kinney's work was critical in instilling confidence with the athletic department officials that the Bentley was the proper place for their materials. Madej argues that this had a lot to do with the new found convenience, "Whenever anyone from the athletic department needed anything, they got it quicker than if they had to start sorting through drawers in the basement of the athletic department."
Weidenbach, who still resides in the Ann Arbor area, takes pride in his role in the moving the collection from the basement to the Bentley, calling it, with a slight chuckle, "One of my better moves."
Extending the Tradition
Needless to say Madej is very pleased with the state of the collection and attributes that to its curator. "It's not perfect but it is possibly one of the best sports libraries you are going to find on a campus at a university because of what Greg Kinney has done."
"All we do is give him stuff. Trust me, it's Greg who does this and he has literally taken it over. When HBO did their documentary on the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, they told me they couldn't believe how easy it was to work with us."
Through films and documentaries like HBO's The Rivalry and the many books, articles, and blog posts produced over the past two decades the library performs a dual role. It not only preserves the history, but also, as Madej told me, provides a means "to allow people to use that history to extend our tradition."
The Digital Future
The challenge in archiving information for an entity like the athletic department is that volume of data is not only continuing and growing, the media itself is changing. Madej explains, "When I started we would get 20 or 25 photos from every game. Now we're talking the on the scale of 500,000 images for each game as everything is in video."
What will the future of archival hold? For the athletic collection, likely some type of a data management solution to enable sensible storage and retrieval of digital media. Madej understands that this is a just an extension of the challenges he faced back in 1982.
Whatever happens down the road, thanks to the vision of Madej and Weidenbach along with the care and expertise of Greg Kinney, the athletics history at the University of Michigan will be preserved for generations to enjoy.
- Greg Dooley is a GoBlueWolverine special writer. Dooley also contributes to MVictors.com, a website covering the culture and history of Michigan athletics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.