NOTE: Librarian has-been that I am, I regret to admit that I had not followed the creation of the East Side Freedom Library with the attention it richly deserves. Perennial information-sharer that I hope to remain, my intent here is to share some of the story of this community work-in-progress. ESFL thrives as a living legacy that breathes life into the stories of a neighborhood always in flux and of the people who have long shaped — and continue to enhance — this vibrant community.
Browsing a Friends of the Library book sale a few years ago, I picked up a copy of Twelve Branches: A collection of stories gathered from the dozen branches of the St. Paul Public Library published several years ago Friends of SPPL. I was reminded of that little tome when I learned recently of the reincarnation of the Arlington Hills Library on St. Paul’s East Side. It made me think about the subtle presence – the stories, experiences, spirit of a neighborhood that lingers within a library building. The stories survive, even when the bricks and mortar structure that once thrived as a public library is deemed a Digital Age Dinosaur.
The venerable Arlington Hills Branch was a Carnegie Library, constructed in 1918, located to serve the ever-changing flow of immigrant workers who continue to settle – and stay – on St. Paul’s East Side. Library patrons have always been new Americans. Once they were-Post World War I immigrants from Europe, the immigrants who built the churches and schools, worked on the railroad, and labored in the industries that thrived on the East Side “back in the day. Today’s residents are a mix of immigrant newcomers from Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Central America, poor people seeking jobs and a place to rear their families. (http://eastsidefreedomlibrary.org/building/st-pauls-east-side/)
Once abandoned, the stately Arlington Hills Library building has risen Phoenix-like to preserve and share the stories of the neighbors and the neighborhood – stories that echo in the once-lonely structure while they reflect the ever-evolving vitality of the community.
The Carnegie building now houses the East Side Freedom Library, once a dream, now a reality. ESFL reflects the vision of labor historian Peter Rachleff, his wife theater artist Beth Cleary, and a host of determined colleagues including Macalester and East Side residents.
Readily evident in the library’s fledgling collection are the stories of organized labor, much culled from the personal collection of founder Rachleff. There’s more, however, including selection by and about African American History, especially works by and about W.E.B. DuBois, co-founder of the NAACP, and a mix of fiction and non-fiction that capture the lives of working people, stories of the East Side community. Soon to find their place on ESFL shelves are the Hmong Archives (http://hmongarchives.org), a collection of books and materials that capture the history and lives of the East Side’s more recent residents.
The ESFL also boasts a robust agenda of public programming that draws neighbors to the emerging community gathering place. Rachleff estimates that ESFL hosts public events six days a week. Neighbors gather to explore ideas ranging from this week’s discussion of the papal encyclicals of Pope Francis (http://eastsidefreedomlibrary.org/event/conversation-on-the-papal-encyclical-on-climate-crisis-july-29/) to next week’s documentary on Minnesota’s best known architectural feature (http://eastsidefreedomlibrary.org/event/who-built-our-capitol/)
The impressive story of the resurrection and evolution of the library building is told by those far better informed and more articulate than this blogger. My intent is to highlight – and link to – the stories that others have recorded, just in case the reader has somehow missed (as I did) this bit of history unfolding in our own time.
- The first link is to the East Side Free Library’s impressive website which shares the stories of the library’s evolution and of the East Side community itself. (http://eastsidefreedomlibrary.org
- Library aficionado Andy Sturdevant has a great piece reflecting his visit to ESFL in MinnPost, (https://www.minnpost.com/stroll/2014/07/meddling-class-finds-its-righteous-voice-east-side-freedom-library)
- Metro State volunteers/interns/grads Heidi Anderson Ferdinand and Scott Williams penned a recent blog post on ESFL which includes the bios of people who have donated collections. http://eastsidefreedomlibrary.org/history-and-community-building-the-east-side-freedom-library-by-heidi-anderson-ferdinand-and-scott-williams/
- Most recently, the East Side Review (July 12, 2015) carried a timely piece and update by news editor Patrick Larkin. http://knightfoundation.org/press-room/press-mention/east-side-freedom-library-growing-bustling/ The subtitle suggests the story: “Bountiful books, plenty of programming fill the unique building.”