New Boston Branch of the Minneapolis Public Library – The Roots of Northeast

It was in the early eighties that a group of young men and women began building their homes in the pretty rolling woodland in what was then the extreme northeast portion of Minneapolis.  Although they may not have been first to call the locality New Boston, the name appealed to them as being a symbol of what they wished to make their settlement; for they were largely from New England and had the informed conviction that where they should live, raise their children, and build their schools and churches there must certainly be a “hub of culture”, and although the little neighborhood has now grown to a large community made up of representatives of many nations, the ideal of making it a center of culture is still one of its chief characteristics

So wrote an unidentified librarian in a “Community Study” of the New Boston Branch of the Minneapolis Public Library. (Though the carefully handwritten study is not dated, it is no doubt written about the time of the opening of what is now the Northeast Library.)  The history of the Northeast Library, which opened again on April 2, must include the story of  of the New Boston Branch of the Minneapolis Public Library.  New Boston and Northeast share a common, unswerving vision of the library’s role as a “hub of culture” for the community, even as they share their geographic permanence at 25th and Central Northeast.

In December 1889 the Minneapolis Public Library opened its doors on Hennepin Avenue near the South end of the downtown area.  The new library was clearly designed to serve as the “hub of culture” for a growing city.  The Director, Herbert Putnam, lit a fire when he offered an early appointment to Gratia Alta Countryman, a fledgling graduate of the University of Minnesota with “no special training for library work” but a strong recommendation from the University President.  By 1892, Putnam had assumed the Director position at the Boston Public Library and James Kendall Hosmer was named Director of the Minneapolis Public Library.  It was Hosmer who named Countryman as his assistant.

Countryman wasted no time.   In December, 1892, a delivery station, “H”, was opened in Moody’s Drug Store at Central and 25th.  In that same year several branches and stations were established.  Countryman reported that “an extra man with horse and wagon was required to make the necessary deliveries form the Main Library” to the several stations.

The Director’s Report for 1893 notes that these delivery stations “have been excellently cared for by the gentlemen in whose stores they have been located and have served a most useful purpose.”  When Mr. Moody went out of business in 1899 the deposit station was placed in Mr. Gormley’s Drug Store at Central and 24th.  A reported 14,000-18,000 books circulated each year at Station “H” under the supervision of the proprietor of the drug store. The neighborhood did indeed have a thirst for learning and a commitment to development of a “hub of culture.

Public response to the storefront deposit station was so enthusiastic that on January 19, 1907, the New Boston Sub-Branch of the Minneapolis Public Library opened in a rented 30xfoot storefront at 24th and Central.  “The landlord obligingly agreed to wait a year for his rent, and $150,000 was raised by the people in the community to buy tables, chairs and bookcases.”  The books were all borrowed from the Main Library which offered delivery three times a week from downtown to the New Boston Sub-Branch.

A later report from yet another unnamed librarian offers a broad stroke summary of the early years:

Many children, 200 and 300 a day, used the branch, as well as men employed in the Soo Shops, the members of the Oliver Wendell Holmes Club, a well-known women’s study club of the day in that neighborhood, and other people in the flourishing district.  24, 701 books were circulated in 1907.

The meticulous reports from the New Boston Sub-Branch indicate that the venerable Gratia Alta Countryman was a stickler for accountability!

By 1908 the New Boston Branch was beginning to take shape.  One indicator is the addition of named Branch Librarian, one Martha Ingerson, who actually signed her name to her totally inclusive annual report.  Ingerson remained with the library until 1928.  The librarian’s report for that year indicates that “we have a large well-lighted room.  During the past year we have had a neat sign printed on our front window and pictures hung upon our walls.  New shelving, a dictionary stand, magazine rack and card cabinet have been added.”

The annual report for the year reflects a fledgling operation, describing in detail the expansion of the collection, with special reference to the fact that 32% of the library’s circulation was of juvenile titles.

In her next annual report to the Administration Ingerson writes more explicitly of the collection and thus the users – e.g. the fact that foreign literature accounted for 52% of the collection and the continued importance of service to children.  The anonymous Community Study of the New Boston Branch speaks lovingly of these children:  “Not only do the children come the humblest homes attend the East High School, but their names appear in the recitals of the local music teachers and on the programs of entertainments given by churches and lodges.”

The study asserts that  “the home attitude toward education is likewise held in the community life, far more than fine buildings or large enterprises for enriching themselves, they have labored to have ‘the church spire near the school’ and to keep a quiet, orderly, Godfearing neighbborhood.  They have stood firmly against the encroachment of the saloon and other lower influences, welcoming at the same time, the advent of any institution of an uplifting nature.”  The report even covers the patriotism displayed in the names of the presidential streets in Northeast.

The New Boston Library worked closely with the schools, specifically naming Prescott, Eli Whitney, Van Cleve, Northwest, J.S. Pillsbury, St. Anthony and Thomas Lowry.  “The cordial relations, which exist between the schools and the library, had their beginning when the branch was new and principals and teachers united with the branch librarian to make the two public institutions of public benefit.´  There was a night school in the Prescott building where students learned cooking, serving, millinery, bookkeeping and much more.

Home study was another element in New Boston’s program as was service to those, “working and studying, each in a class by himself, to make his spare minutes his college.” There are mentions of the Soo line workers, the largest of the many factories and foundries in the Northeast district, of the predominance of Scandinavian and German descendents, and of the library’s extension of services to the people of Columbia Heights.

As growth in circulation and library users grew, so did the need for a self-contained library.  With substantial community support and the largesse of Andrew Carnegie the Central Avenue Branch of the Minneapolis Library opened on November 15, 1915.  The cost of library – and its architecture – were the result of Andrew Carnegie’s gift of $25,000 which the city fathers originally spurned as “tainted money”.(Carnegie’s gift of $125,000 also built the Pillsbury Library, now an office building at Central and University, and the Franklin Avenue Library, restored and the last of the Carnegie Libraries still operational in Minneapolis.)

Though the Carnegie Library was razed in 1971 the spirit, even the programs and services of the New Boston Library, endure – and at the same 25th and Central Avenue location.  Today’s Northeast Community Library serves the same community and embraces the same vision of a “hub of culture” that has infused the library since those first seeds were plated in 1892.

The architecture is new, technology has changed nearly everything, and the clientele continues to evolve.  Still, the essentials remain and will prosper in this community where the vision of a hub of culture, built on a strong foundation, nurtured by decades of commitment, is a constant

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Timeline:

1892 – First deposit station “H” for New Boston community – located at Moody’s Drug Store, 25th and Central

1907 –  New Boston Sub Branch Library opens in storefront on 24th and Central

1915 –  Central Library opens at 25th and Central

1971 –  Central Library razed

1973 –  Northeast Community Library opens

2008    Merger of Minneapolis Public Library and Hennepin County Library

2011  – Renovated Northeast Library re-opens

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