by Kathleen Ernst
Like all writers and readers, I owe a huge debt of thanks to librarians. As a history junkie, I’m particularly interested in the pioneers in that profession.
I recently attended a special event called “The Women of Mill City” at The Mill City Museum in Minneapolis, MN. Actors portrayed several remarkable women.
In belated honor of National Library Week, I'd like to share a bit of what I learned about Gratia Alta Countryman--who once wrote in a letter to her father, "I do so long to be more than an ordinary woman."
The daughter of immigrant farmers, Gratia Countryman (1866-1954) grew up in a time when libraries were often accessible only to those who could pay a membership fee. She attended college and became a librarian in 1889.
In 1904, she became head of the Minneapolis Public Library—the first woman to lead a metropolitan library system. In 1934 she became the first woman president of the American Library Association.
|(Minnesota Historical Society/Creative Commons)|
She is perhaps best remembered for her philosophy of outreach. She wanted all residents to have access to books, regardless of their income level or social status.
In her 1905 Annual Report she wrote, “How to reach the busy men and women, how to carry wholesome and enjoyable books to the far-away corners of the city, how to enlist the tired factory girls...these are some of the things which I conceive to be my duty.”
During her 32 years as head librarian, she was responsible for the construction of 12 new branch libraries and the addition of over 500,000 volumes to the city collection. She established a book wagon. She created satellite libraries in factories, hospitals, prisons, community centers for new immigrants, parks, the Salvation Army, and many other locations. She started the first children's department in the country.
When Gratia Countryman died, her eulogy captured her passion for libraries and literacy: “In her youth a library was a sacred precinct for guarding the treasures of thought, to be entered only by the scholar and the student... Her crusading zeal carried the book to every part of her city and county, to the little child, the factory worker, the farmer, the businessman, the hospital patient, the blind and the old.”
After the performance at the museum, I spoke with the Living History Player who portrayed Gratia. We lamented the fact that instead of continuing to build upon Countryman’s accomplishments, recent years have brought a reduction in library services.
I hope that pendulum swings back again. As Gratia Countryman knew, libraries are not luxuries.