Library history


The residents of Hennepin County have enjoyed library service since 1860 when local lumberman T.B. Walker established the publicly traded Minneapolis Athenaeum, a subscription library that was open to the public and, at the same time, traded on the Stock Exchange.  The story of the Athenaeum is a grand tale in and of itself.  One hero of the saga is Bayard Taylor, a scholar from “The East,” who visited Minneapolis to talk about all things literary and library.  The locals joined forces to prepare the way; the profits from his talk supported what was to become the Athenaeum.  A seed was planted.

The history of library service to residents of Hennepin County – told best through the stories of the legendary leaders – will be celebrated with the June 30 opening of For Use: 125 Years of Library Service in Hennepin County, an exhibit sponsored by the Hennepin County Library Foundation.  The remembrance includes a tribute of Gratia Countryman portrayed by a Minnesota history player.  The free and open event is June 30 the Central Library is funded by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.  Contact Johannah Genette, 612 543 8639 or for details about the opening event and the exhibit.

That seed bore rich fruit for Minneapolitans and for future generations.  A quarter century later in 1885, the Minneapolis Public Library (MPL) was established when the Minnesota Legislature passed an authorizing amendment to the Minneapolis City Charter. One of the prime movers for the MPL was T.B. Walker himself, a fact that gave MPL a head start over similar initiatives in other major cities.

The proud history of MPL is captured brilliantly in The Library Book written by Bruce Weir Benidt and published in 1985 on the occasion of MPL’s centenary.  One of my proudest possessions is a beautifully illustrated copy of The Library Book given to me by the legendary J. Harold Kittleson.  In his inscription, Mr. Kittleson wrote in part.  “This is probably one of the best if not the best history of any public library in the U.S.A.”  High praise indeed from a man who knew his libraries and his books!  Though Mr. Kittleson died a decade ago, his impact on MPL is felt through the library’s policies, collection, staff and prominence in the local and national communities.

As the suburbs expanded and readers demanded library services among the amenities of suburban living, HCL was established in 1922 as an independent public agency separate from MPL.  At the outset HCL was, in fact, a mobile service in which horse-drawn wagons delivered materials to Hennepin County residents who lived outside the core city.

The first director of HCL was Gratia Countryman, the legendary MPL librarian whose story is beautifully told in Jane Pejsa’s biography, Gratia Countryman: Her life, her loves and her library.  ( I learned much more about Gratia Countryman when I recently posted a blog about the New Boston Library, predecessor of my neighborhood Northeast Minneapolis Library.  The New Boston Library was a storefront enterprise until 1915 when the Carnegie Library that once served the community was built in 1915.)  And therein lies another post.

Fiscal reality has brought major change to HCL and MPL.  In 2008, the two very different systems merged into a single mega-system – an urban library with deep roots combined with a well-funded suburban system more into statistics than capturing the history of the city and its environs.

The evolving story of library services to residents of the county and the city is a story of changing population patterns, finances, politics, services, buildings and priorities.
It’s a story that begins with the Athenaeum, the original downtown Central library, demolished in 1954 in the urban renewal era, and celebrated in the late 20th Century by the Cesar Pelli designed Central Library on Nicollet Mall to serve the Minneapolis community ranging from babes in arms to job-seekers searching at computer work stations scholars plumbing the depths of Special Collections.

Better yet, take time to explore the history of the city and the library by visiting  – physically or digitally – the Central Library, especially the Minneapolis Collection, the story of a great city preserved with love and care by generations of librarians.  The collection includes gems ranging from high school yearbooks to photos, maps, biographical materials and, my personal favorite, the files of scores of reading groups and other clubs that flourished for decades in this learning community.

Mary Treacy writes about whatever interests her at the moment  as she pokes around the Twin Cities and writes her observations on her blog, Poking Around with Mary.