Friends and custodians of a massive collection of baseball memorabilia donated by the late Detroit Tigers broadcaster Ernie Harwell to the Detroit Public Library say the artifacts are typically inaccessible to the public and that pieces are at risk of theft.
The primary caretaker of the collection that's worth an estimated $4 million was laid off in the year since Harwell's death, further limiting access to the appointment-only display at the library that had only 500 visitors in 2010, The Detroit News reported Thursday.
Library spokesman A.J. Funchess said the system has tightened security and the collection is not at risk, and the most valuable items are archived and secure.
"It's still available to people," Funchess said. "It may not be the ideal access they may like, but that is pretty much how we have to do it.
"We are doing the best we can do with what we have to work with. We are committed to these collections."Harwell, a baseball announcing legend, died in May 2010 at the age of 92. The collection includes thousands of baseball cards, letters and other artifacts.
Theft already has been a concern. Four years ago, a former library staffer was fired for stealing some of Harwell's baseball cards. The cards were returned, but the employee wasn't prosecuted and the newspaper reports officials can't be certain they got all the cards back.
A former librarian said many boxes of artifacts are stored — but un-catalogued — in the basement, meaning it is difficult to know if items have been removed.
"It's sad," said Ashley Koebel, who was laid off in March. "They are understaffed under the best of circumstances."
Harwell's friend and attorney Gary Spicer said Harwell was happy by the library's organization of his pieces, but that the display isn't what the broadcaster envisioned. "The Lulu and Ernie Harwell Display Room," which opened in 2004, is dark most days, visible through a window.
"He really wanted it to be open and accessible to people," Spicer said.
The library has cut staffing for its special collections by almost a third since 2007, including the National Automotive Heritage Collection and the E. Azalia Hackley Collection, which started in 1943 as a music collection devoted to black performers.
Only about a dozen employees remain to staff special collections. Mark Bowden, the Detroit library's coordinator for special collections, is now the only person overseeing the Harwell collection. He said special collections like Harwell's help make the library unique.
"This is so important for Detroit to have collections like this," he said.