Duluth Public Library almost as old as cityIn 1869, Duluth did not yet have elected officials, a ship canal or a hotel (one was being built). Nonetheless, that year some Duluthians established a library.
By: Patra Sevastiades, Budgeteer News
The other day, I stopped by the reference desk at the library.
“I’m looking for information on the history of the Duluth Public Library,” I said.
Chris Aho, a librarian, promptly led me to a filing cabinet and retrieved nine folders. I was shown to a table in a quiet area, given the files, and invited to sit down.
“I’ll be right back,” she said.
Soon she returned, wheeling a cart groaning under the weight of 38 folios, 10 oversized binders, a thick manila envelope and a handful of dog-eared bound volumes. I gulped.
As I began to look through the materials, I marveled; I did not have to prove American citizenship, I did not have to be a Duluth resident and I did not have to pay anything to access this information.
In only five minutes, the magic of the public library had revealed itself to me: This is a place for everybody, with equal access for everyone.
And I was surrounded by knowledge. The librarians at the Library of Alexandria, arguably the greatest collection of human knowledge in the ancient world, would have been impressed.
They also would have envied Duluth’s robust fire department. When their library burned — possibly because Julius Caesar set fire to his own ships in order to repel an enemy in 48 BC — they could only watch as the vast collection of papyrus scrolls was consumed by flames.
The Duluth Public Library, one of the city’s treasures, has its roots in the city’s earliest days.
In 1852, George R. Stuntz, a surveyor, came to the area and was captivated. He obtained treaty permission to establish a trading post on the narrow stretch of Indian land where the St. Louis River empties into Lake Superior. “Duluth” at first referred only to the Minnesota Point area.
By 1869, Duluth had expanded significantly, and that year brought plans for a new railroad running from St. Paul to Duluth. This single development triggered a rush of newcomers.
As Luke A. Marvin, whose parents brought him and his siblings to Duluth in 1861, later recalled: “In a few months there were two or three thousand people added to the population. There was no place to put them. There was not a hotel in the place … and every family had taken in as many as it could accommodate, and yet there were thousands to be provided for. They lived in tents; they put up the rudest kind of shacks for a temporary shelter until they could erect houses. As fast as the sides and roof of a building were completed, and before doors or windows could be supplied, the place would be rented out for lodgings. The owner would take a piece of chalk and mark off on the floor space sufficient for a man to lie down, number the space, and rent it out.”
In 1869, Duluth did not yet have elected officials, a ship canal or a hotel (one was being built).
Nonetheless, that year some Duluthians established a library.
They followed Benjamin Franklin’s example and set up a subscription library so that they would have funds to purchase books and newspapers, to rent a room to house it all and to pay a librarian. However, only members of the Duluth Library Association could use the room and its contents. (The people who rented a numbered floor space were probably not among them.)
Members would go to 106 W. Superior St., now CSL Plasma, and walk up to the second floor and enter a pleasant reading room. They could sit in comfortable chairs while reading daily newspapers from New York and Chicago or peruse some of the 360 books, such as “Plutarch’s Lives” and the lively “Geology of Iowa,” or read government documents.
The library opened with a splash of media attention, the rustle of high-society gowns and a bright future. But a financial panic hit Duluth in 1873, and the local economy buckled. Roughly half of the businesses folded. Many people fled.
The reading room eventually closed, and by 1878 the book collection had been donated to the Board of Education to help start a high school library. For two years, Duluth had no library.
Then, in 1880, some of the leading ladies of Duluth, seeking to enhance the city’s culture, created the Ladies’ Library Association. They, too, raised money through membership. They rented rooms for the library at the brand-new opera house, bought books and hired a librarian.
In 1889, a fire destroyed the entire block. Like the Library of Alexandria, the library was left in ashes. All that remained was $500 in insurance money.
The Minnesota legislature had in the meantime made it possible for tax dollars to be used to build and sustain public libraries. The Ladies’ Library Association approached Mayor John Sutphin with the $500 and the idea of starting a public library in Duluth.
The mayor energetically championed the cause. In a matter of months, a librarian had been hired and 3,200 books ordered. The library opened Aug. 1, 1890, on the second floor of the old Masonic Temple (Second Avenue East and Superior Street).
People turned out in droves and, in response to this high demand, the library soon expanded onto three floors.
In the meantime, a letter was written to Andrew Carnegie, whose financial interest in Duluth was significant (iron ore transported from Duluth was raw material for Carnegie Steel). Carnegie agreed to donate $50,000 for a public library in Duluth.
When city leaders later determined that they needed more for the project, they had the audacity to approach Carnegie again — and he donated an additional $25,000.
The cornerstone for the new library was laid July 4, 1901, with enormous fanfare at the corner of Second Street and First Avenue West. A parade was held, and city representatives placed a picture of Carnegie, a copy of the Duluth City Charter and the daily papers inside the cornerstone, which was then christened with corn, oil and wine. The library opened April 19, 1902.
Much has happened in the intervening 108 years. A new main library was built in 1980 to accommodate the public’s growing demand for materials. Books now share shelf space with CDs, DVDs and computers.
Outside of that early support from Carnegie, the Duluth Public Library has routinely had to struggle financially. The public’s growing need for materials has always outstripped the government’s limited resources to fund it.
It is still true today. It is a credit to the city’s leaders that, despite budget cuts, the main library is open six days a week, and the branch libraries three days a week.
An open library makes a difference, as I discovered when I spoke with Carla Powers, the Duluth Public Library’s manager. She told me that, in 2009, 131 people walked into the main library per hour on average (that’s one every 27 seconds) and 302 items were checked out each hour. At the Mt. Royal branch, the average was 85 patrons and 252 items per hour. In West Duluth, the average was 47 patrons and 118 items per hour.
In 2009, more than 881,000 items were checked out at all three locations combined. There were almost 363,000 library visits last year.
Powers also told me that many people visit the library because it is the only place in the city where someone without a computer can have free access to the Internet. This means that the library spans the digital divide: No one needs to be left behind as the Internet becomes a staple of American life.
Powers and Aho are proof positive that the old notion of librarians as tight-lipped women with hair swept up in a bun and glasses perched on their noses has given way to friendly information specialists.
“Librarians generally don’t shush people anymore,” concluded Powers.
In fact, it may be that the trend is going the other way: One time she was actually shushed by a library patron.
“Once I got over my embarrassment, I couldn’t help but laugh,” Powers said. “Libraries these days are less of a quiet sanctuary and more of a bustling community center.”