The Duluth Library and How it Grew

By Tayler Boelk, St. Scholastica Intern, Spring Semester 2015

The year is 1869. The first North American transcontinental railroad has just been completed, Charles Elmer Hires sells his first Root Beer, scenery appears for the first time on U.S. Postage Stamps, and on August 28th, an unusual ad appears in one of Duluth’s earliest newspapers, the Duluth Minnesotan:

Young Men’s Literary and Library Association – All citizens desiring to unite in the organization of this society are requested to meet at Sargent’s banking house on Monday, Aug. 30, evening next, at eight o’clock. A prompt attendance is solicited.

The Young Men’s Literary and Library Association would be the first attempt at creating a library in Duluth, MN. A subscription fee of $5 was paid by those wishing to gain access to the reading room located on the second floor of what is now CSL Plasma. By setting themselves up as a subscription only library, the association could purchase books, newspapers, rent space, and hire a librarian. Miss Anna Seeley became the first librarian in Duluth and was paid $25 a month. The library grew steadily until 1873 when economic panic struck the Duluth community. By 1878, the reading room was shut down and the collection of 600 books were donated to the Board of Education for a high school library.

Duluth Grand Opera House 1880

After two years without a library, an aspiring group of women were determined to make some changes. In 1880, the Ladies Library Association was created. Again, this library began as a small collection funded by subscription and donations. The Ladies Library Association rented space on the second floor of the Grand Opera House at 333 West Superior Street. The library thrived until 1889 when a fire devastated the property. The previously awe-inspiring building was left in ashes, and only the insurance money would be recovered from the destruction.

Duluth Grand Opera House 1889

Even after such a devastating loss, The Ladies Library Association remained hopeful. With the backing of the mayor, the women petitioned the City Council to establish a public library that all could enjoy. To ensure the library’s success, the insurance money from the fire, totaling $500, was given as a donation to jumpstart the project. In less than a year, the library found its temporary home on the second floor of the old Masonic Temple. The library’s extreme popularity pressed for expansion and the need for more books. Soon, the Library Board was considering more permanent options to better meet the needs of a growing community. In order to achieve this goal, however, major funding was needed.

Masonic Temple Reading Room 1890

Andrew Carnegie, a major player in the expansion of the steel industry, was a well-known philanthropist. As a man with significant financial interest in the Duluth area, he was the man for the job. After receiving a letter from Mr. William T. Thompson, editor of The Herald, Carnegie came through with a gift of $50,000. Now, with financial backing, the city made plans for a library to be built on the Northwest corner of Second Street and First Avenue West. Seated centrally in the city and within walking distance of the high school, it seemed like the perfect location, but, things are never quite that easy. With an architectural design that would cost the full $50,000 to build, the city of Duluth would need additional funding to create the library of their dreams. In a dauntless effort to achieve this goal, the city requested that Andrew Carnegie make an additional donation. Carnegie came through, once again, with another $25,000 for the project.

Duluth Carnegie Library 1902

On July 4th, 1901, a grand celebration overtook the city of Duluth. The cornerstone for the library had been laid, and citizens couldn’t have been happier. The placing of the cornerstone was honored with a parade and christened with corn, oil and wine. The library officially opened on April 19th, 1902 and was commemorated with speeches given by Mayor T.W. Hugo, A.F. Rudolph, and Robert E. Denfeld. However, the library’s early years would see many troubles. After just a few short years, the library, already plagued financially, was in need of funding to rebuild the roof due to leakage. Despite such setbacks, the library continued to move forward into the Roaring 20’s.

West Duluth Library 1912

Just ten years after the christening of the Carnegie Building, the West Duluth Library opened its doors to the public, followed by Morgan Park. In 1927, the Duluth Public Library passed the half million mark in circulation. This led to the opening of the Lester Park and Woodland Libraries.

Lester Park Library

Woodland Library

Even with the five Duluth Libraries, locations such as Minnesota Point, Hunters Park, and Gary wanted easier access to the Library’s services, but, lacked funding to open their own branch. In response, the Duluth Public Library began using the Book-Mobile. The first Book-Mobile, operated out of the back of a dodge semi-truck, acted as a mobile library, carrying books to areas of town without library buildings. This truck made stops at the homes of immigrants, carrying books in their native languages as well as English. The operation was considered a huge success as it gained many new readers who may have never entered a library otherwise. By 1927, library circulation had passed the half million mark.

Grapes of Wrath

The 1930’s saw hardship across the nation. The U.S. suffered some of the worst droughts in American History, more than 9,000 banks close in the U.S., and unemployment was on the rise. It was not long before Duluth saw the effects of the great depression, which proved to be extremely detrimental to the library system. The Library was pressured to make a revised budget, making cuts wherever possible. The result of these cuts were the closing of library branches two nights a week, the loss of several employee positions, and severe cuts in the purchasing of books. Encyclopedias, reference books, foreign books, books for the schools, and technical book purchases were severely cut or eliminated all-together by 1931. In 1933, the Duluth Public Library saw the worst financial crisis it would ever experience. By October, the Library had exhausted the entire years funding and were set to close. Citizens of Duluth were asked to return all checked out books and circulation was scheduled to stop for a total of six weeks. On the door read a sign:

Closed because of tax delinquency. Will reopen after payment by those who can. Have you paid yours?

The sign was placed there by the Pay-your-taxes committee, which were campaigning for the payment of back taxes. Hundreds of taxpayers began calling the Pay-your-taxes committee seeking information and aid in the payment of back taxes. During the next two weeks, protests came from all sources. The Chief of Police even made a comment in the Duluth News Tribune saying that the closing of the Library was “conductive to crime.” The “Pay-your-taxes” committee was successful, and after just six days of being closed, the libraries were able to re-open for four days a week. Regular hours resumed when the 1934 budget became available, marking the end of the Library’s worst financial crisis.

The year 1939 marked the beginning of World War II and with it came great public interest in political and international literature. The library, now with approximately 160,000 volumes, reported that Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf was the most popular non-fiction book of 1940. Six other volumes regarding international problems appeared among the top ten most checked out book list. These include: Inside Asia, Days of Our Years, Not Peace but a Sword, and in fiction, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Also a popular subject during the early 40’s were books on local history and genealogy. In addition to the estimated 28,000 local patrons, servicemen stationed in Duluth and tourists began utilizing the Library as well. Servicemen were given free use of the Library and tourists were allowed to check out books by putting down a local reference or making a deposit of $3.00. These deposits would be refunded upon the books safe and timely return.

In 1942, the Duluth Public Library collected 11,000 donations of books to be sent to army camps and USO centers throughout the nation and many parts of the globe. Neighboring towns and the Mesabe range contributed 4,000 books to this cause bringing the total to 15,000. Some of these books traveled as far as Hawaii, Panama, Australia, England, and Iceland. Among these donations, the library found several valuable first editions novels, including two by Mark Twain. The Duluth Public Library assisted in the war effort in many other ways as well. The Library housed Red Cross classes, work group meetings, Victory Aides and Air Raid Wardens classes, fuel oil rationing, rent control, draft registration, first aid classes, and was registered as the official War Information Center for Duluth. When the war ended in 1945, the previous interest in war related books dropped dramatically and interest in books about college and training courses increased. Unfortunately, the end of WWII offered no financial relief for the library.

Children’s Story Hour

In Duluth in the 1950’s, records were becoming increasingly popular, literature by female authors were on the rise, and on July 6th, 1951 the Children’s Story Hour celebrated the 175th anniversary of Independence Day by listening to the story of the Liberty Bell, a history of the American Flag, and the significance of several American holidays. However, by 1957 the Library’s book budget had reached an all-time low. The Library Board expressed to the City Council that unless the Library budget was increased by $100,000, all branches of the Library would need to be closed in order to prevent the book budget from becoming inadequate for the City’s needs. Now that the alarm was sounded, petitions began circulating the city and members of the West Duluth Business Men’s Club, Duluth P.T.A. Council, and many individuals were present for the City Council meeting in order to protest the loss of branch libraries. The protests proved only slightly successful, the branches were agreed to be left open for the year of 1958, but, the budget requirements presented by the Library were not even close to being met.

Speculation of library branch closure would continue all the way into the 60’s. In 1966, Duluth city councilmen decided unanimously to “wipe out the city’s recreation program and branch libraries” by 1967, redirecting the money toward the fire and police departments. Once again, branch libraries were on the chopping block. In an attempt to prevent this tragedy, the KAOH radio station began a fundraising campaign to keep the libraries open. Thanks to all the efforts by the community, the library branches remained open during this year but continued to struggle with funding for the next few years.

Despite many financial problems, the Duluth Public Library had continued to expand and the desire for a new space was now a necessity. By 1970, the model for the new main Library was on display. Another great step forward was the addition of “Little Bookies” to the Book-Mobile family. These mini Book-Mobiles made 5 runs a day Monday through Friday to local parks and playgrounds. By 1975, Book-Mobile circulation was at an all-time high: making stops at the homes of senior citizens, encouraging literacy, and circulating around 86,000 books. With the seemingly exponential growth of interest in the library, once more, it was time to expand. In 1980, the Duluth Public Library made the move to its current location, 520 West Superior Street.

Duluth Library 1980

The Library isn’t just for books anymore. Even now, it continues evolve and adapt in a modern world. Book rentals are now accompanied by CDs and movies, computers are available to those who need them, and help sessions assist patrons in navigating the world of E-books. While these things are great, they are also expensive. Tens of thousands of dollars went into computer hardware, software, equipment and furniture during the 1990’s.

In the 2000’s, Books on Discs were added to the Library’s collections, a new computer lab was introduced, and a very expensive project was undertaken to make the Library handicap accessible.

In 2011, Duluth Library Branches risked closure due to budget cuts, despite book circulation surpassing 900,000. Duluth citizens rallied together, urging the City to increase funding for the library. At the same time, Mayor Don Ness proposed a referendum to establish a tax dedicated to maintaining the declining parks, which would have the secondary effect of increasing dollars for the library. Citizens carried Vote Yes for the Parks and Libraries signs and made plans to help increase Library funds. Their valiant efforts were ultimately successful:The Duluth Public Library and two extended branches, which had been open only 15 hours a week, were now open full-time. Circulation raised significantly, reaching 954,847. The number of Library visitors jumped up by 84,000 and internet sessions increased by 20,000.

After 125 years, the Duluth Public Library still has so much to offer our beautiful city. Whether it be ensuring handicap accessibility, hosting summer writing programs, or just sharing a favorite book, the Library and its staff continue to have a lasting impact on the community. This is, in no small part, thanks to the generous donations and support of Duluth’s citizens.

Photo: Clint Austin — Duluth News Tribune