Rudy Perpich’s 1984 proposal for a Labor History Center was killed by a Jesse Ventura’s 1999 line-item veto, after a series of legislative twists and turns that spanned the intervening 15 years. Now a new labor history center is emerging in East Saint Paul. Former Macalester history professor Peter Rachleff, and his wife, theater professor Beth Cleary, are spearheading the East Side Freedom Library, said that while it’s not a re-incarnation of Perpich’s plan, it will carry forward some of the goals of preserving records and conducting oral histories of labor movement, to as well as encouraging educational activities and cultural programming.
Rachleff and Cleary’s new nonprofit organization has negotiated a 15-year lease with the city on the old Carnegie library at 1105 Greenbrier Street. The lease provides for a rental of $1 a year in addition to doing restoration and preservation. They anticipate filling the library to its capacity of 30,000 volumes, with contributions from Rachleff’s own library as well as those of friends who will be donating materials. In an interview, Rachleff and Cleary described their plans for the building, which they will take over on June 1.
When did you get this idea for this library?
Beth Cleary: We’ve had it for a long time — an idea for a space outside our home where we could share with people who want to learn and research. The space idea has included some other things along the way, but really we’ve had it for 15 years.
Peter Rachleff: We were inspired by Jim Hatch and Camille Billops in New York and their lifelong project, which they call Artist and Influence, which takes place in their loft and includes interviewing artists of color in front of audiences, transcribing the interviews, developing an archive mostly about people of color in the arts. As we got to know them- and got to know their project, we got inspired to do something that reflected that. So that was really the kernel of the idea.
When did you decide to actually do this?
Cleary: We moved to this neighborhood in 1999 and pretty early on we were looking at vacant storefronts in this neighborhood. Then, seriously two summers ago, we started looking again and were very enchanted by this really beautiful church that’s down the street from the library. We got to a point of bringing an architect in there who saw its charm but also saw and its problems, and said if you want to do something that would have to be open to the public, you really would have to change the space and it would be very expensive. We said, oh, well people have been talking about this library down the road, and encouraging Peter to look at it because it’s going out of the city’s purview soon. So the architect came with us and went, “Oh, here’s your building.”
The same day?
Rachleff: The same day. And [the second building] had the aura of being a Carnegie library, having been a place in this neighborhood since 1917. And part of how this neighborhood has changed — this was a blue collar, heavily unionized neighborhood, that revolved around 3M manufacturing, Hamm’s Brewery, Whirlpool Manufacturing, and the neighborhood became thoroughly de-industrialized. All of those jobs went away. There’s a substantial residue of older, white, ethnic folks, more Scandinavian than Irish and German but some Irish and German. These are people whose kids moved away because there were not jobs here. But many of them have remained, which is often what happens when you have a group in transition. The seniors of the previous group are the last to go or stay. For them this library was a very important part of their childhood and of their children’s childhood. The building is really iconic for that segment of the neighborhood. And then, as we discovered, it’s become meaningful for newer residents as well.
Can you say anything about the architecture of the building?
Rachleff: It is Beaux-arts style
Cleary: And the three Carnegie libraries in St. Paul sort of speak to each other. They weren’t built the same year, but they were presumably applied for by neighbors. That’s how it usually went. These three look like each other: they have these enormous windows and grand entrance staircases, which don’t work anymore for ADA reasons. This library got a federal grant to do an upgrade in 1989 when they put in an elevator. I look at the building and the way you are supposed to go up the stairs, and the idea of the architecture was really beckoning. Come in this beautiful space and use natural light to read and to browse and to learn. And whatever we may think about Andrew Carnegie, he had this vision of these libraries, part of his largesse creating literally republics of letters in neighborhoods. And he did this around the world. There were lots of them in the U.S. There were 66 in Minnesota. And there were more outside of the U.S.
What’s going to be the collection of the library?
Rachleff: It will focus on working class history, immigration history, African American history, and ways of representing those histories — in performance, music, visual art. So it will be what the histories have been and how they have been represented over time. The core of the collection is the books that I’ve put together over my 35 years of college teaching.
Cleary: The complements to Peter’s collection — the big one — is the set of books and materials and records sent to us by Fred Ho, who is a Chinese American baritone saxophone player and composer.
Rachleff: And scholar and author.
Cleary: Unfortunately Fred is exiting this world with a terminal illness and so, knowing that this could be a place for to have his books have continuous life, he sent them to us.
Rachleff: Fred’s collection is very important and I think could even make it a destination for scholars around the country. Fred’s work is also important because he has been a big advocate for and scholar of Afro-Asian solidarity, particularly through art and particularly through music and performance.
We are talking with a guy named Marlon Heise, who has put together a substantial Hmong archive and he used to be a curator at the Minnesota Historical Society, which he left some time ago, and he’s built an immense archive which includes material objects as well as paper and oral histories.
Cleary: It’s meticulous.
Rachleff: And then our old friend Sal Salerno has this collection of working class poetry and fiction, which we’ve discussed with him. And we’re open to other material that fits the concept.
Where are things at in terms of the timeline?
Rachleff: It’s sort of easiest to think about as sort of three things. The first one is the building. The second one is collections that go in the building, and the third will be programs that we intend to create, often in partnership with other organizations and institutions. And we’ve cultivated a strategic partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society, the Minnesota Humanities Center, the Metro State Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship, the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library and U of M Immigration History Research Center. And so we imagine working with them in part to steer people our way, and also to help us develop some of the kinds of programs that we might want to do.
So the very first thing that has to happen: we have to pay for a new roof.
Cleary: But we can and probably will move some things in. We would like to do an interior paint job and carpet replacement- that could go on while the roof is happening, and then we could move in these various collections. The hope is that fall/winter we would actually be open for some limited programming.
In terms of finding aids. are you hoping to hire an archivist?
Cleary: We haven’t gotten that far, but we’ve had preliminary talks with people who know about library science- and have talked to us about creating innovative finding aids that would not only be fun to use, but would also bespeak the spirit of the building. There are ways to not use Dewey Decimal System, to not use the Library of Congress, but rather to invent our own classifications for this collection.
Rachleff: There is an intellectual logic and a political logic. It’s important to us that labor history books, African American history books, immigration history books, Chicano, Asian American, Native American history books are in the same space. We want to suggest even by their mere sharing the same space that they are in conversation with each other. We want to come up with a system of finding aids to cross boundaries in the materials that they look at. We’ve talked to a couple of younger people in MLS programs now — a former student who is at the University in British Collection who’s working with Native American collections there — and they seem to be creating a new kind of way of approaching the problem of cataloguing knowledge, and we would love to be able to incorporate something like that.
Obviously that will have to be a grant to be able to hire someone.
Do you have any plans for earned income?
Rachleff: We have thought many times about that, struggled with the concept of a revenue stream, and with a strong push from a friend who’s been helping us. He said you should stick to what you want to do and make people who are responsible pay you to do what you want to do rather than doing a bunch of things like selling coffee or renting workspace or subleasing space. I don’t think we are going to make much income. We are going to be consistently looking for grants from foundations, from the public sector and have an aggressive capital campaign.
What are some of the programs you have planned?
Rachleff: So for instance, I have done some mentoring of junior high and high school kids who have been doing History Day projects. But it’s been pretty ad hoc, and it’s mostly been where I have a relationship with a teacher, many of them being Macalester graduates. And what I’m trying to do now — I’m trying to work through principals, particularly at East Side Schools, so I will have a relationship with them and through them their teachers, So teachers will send more kids to me who are doing History Day projects. And the resources at the library will make a great deal of sense that these kids can use.
Do you have a goal how much you’d like to raise?
Rachleff: With the lease, we are committed to replacing the roof by the end of the year and raising at least $50,000 the following year for upkeep and $50,000 the year after that for upkeep.
The architect used the terms restoration, preservation and renovation. The building is in good shape but it needs some restoration. Then a building like this, according to the architect, you need to pay attention to preservation. You need to tuck point one side of the building every year. You have to have a plan to do all of that. Then the renovation we want to do: this building is on the national list of historic sites. We can’t really do anything to the outside of the building. So the renovation we want to do is all in the basement of the building, not on the main floor where the books will be. But the downstairs where we will create this flexible space that includes adaptability to performance, that we’re looking at both movable walls or heavy curtains so more intimate spaces can be created for writing workshops. We’d like to update the kitchen and the office downstairs. By the time the dust settles on the architect’s plans, he’s talking about between $800,000- and $1 million for restoration, preservation and renovation.
Cleary: And that also includes the establishment of a maintenance fund.
Rachleff: And that doesn’t begin to talk about programming.
Cleary: But you know, it’s really a great adventure. I mean, we’re not in our 30s, that’s for sure, we’re not spring chickens. But there’s still something very adventuresome about it. We’re not geniuses for doing it. We just happen to live in this neighborhood, and there’s kind of a need, and this building needs some stewardship.
Why is this important?
Rachleff: As someone who spent the vast part of my adult years trying to teach the history of working people, and then for 15 years have been involved with a program with the St. Paul Public library called Untold Stories, this is still history that people don’t know and I think it’s important for people to know their own history and to know each other’s history. That history is not just about Abe Lincoln and George Washington, but about working people and immigrants. This is a neighborhood that has been a source of great contributions to the building of the labor movement in Saint Paul, to the building of immigrant institutions in Saint Paul. It’s a neighborhood that’s very badly understood by larger community. So we see it as a neighborhood that has needs, but also that has great resources and strengths. And we really want to tap into those and make them more visible so people can see themselves in more empowered ways.
Cleary: Even in this age of booklessness and paperlessness and screens, that there is a place for a reading room. I believe there is a place for the tangible and learning through the tangible.