A voice from the past at the Minnesota History Center

Gratia Countryman (1866-1953)

I wear many hats in my professional life–museum professional, museum studies instructor, art historian, archival researcher, social historian.  When something happens and they all come together it has all the makings of a great day.   I’m currently in Minneapolis at the 2012 American Association of Museum’s conference to represent MIDEA in a session on tagging, and to talk to the members of COMPT (The Committee on Museum Professional Training) at their annual luncheon about the work of the NMC.

Anyway, that explains why I’m here in the land of 10,000 lakes.  Yesterday I had some time on my own and I headed over to sister city St. Paul and the Minnesota History Center to spend some time in the library and archives.   My research goal was to skim quickly through registers of eight manuscript collections–which I had identified in advance using the MHC’s terrific set of online resources. I was looking for travel journals for Americans traveling in Europe ca 1870 as part of a book I’m writing about American cultural attitudes towards museums and galleries before the coming of big museums to America.

Skimming manuscript collections is like panning for gold. Five of the collections I looked at yielded nothing useful–but the three that had something were fantastic.  The Eugene  Eugene Langdon Mann family papers included  twenty-one letters written to his father, while Mann was studying medicine in Europe.  Written in 1898-99 they are a little late for me but Mann writes in a clean hand (that’s important!) about his perceptions of people and customs.   I hit research pay dirt in the Henry Nathan Herrick papers.  Herrick was a Free Will Baptist minister in Minneapolis and bless his heart, he took a trip to Europe in 1870 and kept a journal.   Although he seems to have spent much of his time preaching and reflecting upon the preaching of others, he too visits galleries and museums.

The final collection (which was actually the first one I looked at) was the real icing on the cake of the day.   In my online search I had looked simply for collections with travel journals ca 1870 + or – 30 years.   Gratia A. Countryman’s journal of her bike trip across the UK with a bunch of young women turned out to be of no real interest but oh my stars and garters if you are interested in the history of libraries in the United States (and I am) the Gratia A. Countryman papers are a goldmine.  Countryman was the first woman to head the Minneapolis Public Library and was President of the ALA in 1934.  There are folders and folders and folders full of hand-written notes and typed remarks on any library topic from the 1900-1940 you can imagine.  I read through a series of speeches she gave during the Depression discussing the importance of libraries for the country in times of economic turmoil and despair and was surprised at how relevant her remarks are for our own time.

I love this passage from an article she wrote in the Minnesota Public Library Commission Library Notes and News, No. 5, St. Paul, December 1905.  Her topic is “The Library as Social Center.”

Many of our libraries are now housed in beautiful buildings, in which case the building as well as the books becomes a means of social influence.  If there is need of a home for social intercourse and amusement, the library may legitimately attempt to furnish such a home within its walls.  If there are social or study clubs, organized labor guilds or missionary societies, or any other organization encourage them to meet at the library, find out what they need, let them know that the library is their co-operative partner and so with the schools and industries of which I have not time to speak.  The whole building at all times should be managed in the broadest spirit of hospitality, the atmosphere should be as gracious, kindly and sympathetic as one’s own home.

The Minnesota History Center is just the kind of place that Gratia Countryman was talking about. 


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