Librarians mark a 100th anniversary by returning to their former home


The East Side Freedom Library, located in a now-100-year-old Carnegie building, held an Aug. 8 reunion for former librarians who worked there. Until 2014, the building housed the Arlington Hills St. Paul Public Library. file photos

The Arlington Hills Library as seen in 1925. The picture was taken at the corner of Greenbrier Street and Jessamine Avenue and shows the street car tracks that ran along Greenbrier. file photos

As part of the year-long centennial celebration of Carnegie libraries in St. Paul, the East Side Freedom Library hosted a librarian reunion Aug. 8.

The reunion brought together librarians who had worked in the now-100-year-old Carnegie building when it was part of the St. Paul Public Library system as Arlington Hills Library. In 2014, Arlington Hills moved to its new building at the corner of Payne and Maryland avenues.

Some 20 people came, including past library staff, current library catalogers and volunteers, and those who had used the space for their studies

Many had not stepped in the building since moving on to other career positions.

One former staff member, Lora Bloom, who lives nearby the library, worked there from 2010 to 2014 in the learning center. 

“I always felt very connected to my work here because my neighbors would come in here and see me in here, so that was very special,” she said.

Bloom is now a cataloger at the Sun Ray Library.

“I live in the neighborhood and it’s so rewarding to think that this building is still in use and not only still up and running,” she said, “but being used as a library.”

 

A meaningful space for many

Many of the librarians also said they were excited to see the building continue to be used as a library, especially one that’s connected to the labor and immigrant roots of the neighborhood.

“It truly is a community hangout, meeting space and exchange of ideas,” Bloom said.

Brian Xiong, who is a board member for both the East Side Freedom Library and the Hmong Archives that are housed there, explained the library space and its resources have been irreplaceable for his work on his doctorate degree and book.

Xiong will be presenting his dissertation at the library next month on the experiences of gay men in the Hmong-American community.

He said he’s spent a lot of time at the library, either going through resources, using the space to interview people for his book, or writing.

He said he found it especially valuable when he needed a quiet place to work.

“When you come here, with these books, all these authors and what they’ve done with their life in terms of writing and with the knowledge they have, it inspires you in this space of knowledge,” he said.

“I found, in a way, their spirits through their books, supported me while I finished my writing.”

 

100 years in the neighborhood

Historian Greg Gaut, a retired history professor from St. Mary’s University in Winona, collected stories and contact information from the building’s former librarians.

Gaut is researching and writing the first draft of a book about the library’s history within the context of the East Side’s story. His research is being paid for by a Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund grant.

He’s been researching for about six months and plans to have the first draft finished by Oct. 1. A release date is unknown, as another grant will be needed to print and publish the book.

In his retirement Gaut works in historic preservation, researching the history of various buildings across the state. He recently wrote a book about the Winona Public Library, one of the oldest public libraries in the state.

He said what makes his current project stand out is the emphasis on the connection between the history of the neighborhood in relation to the library.

Gaut said he’s seen in much of his work across the state that similar buildings aren’t suited for much else than a library, and when abandoned, are left vacant, falling into disrepair.

“Buildings have to have people in them,” he said.

As a part of their 15-year lease agreement, East Side Freedom Library co-directors Peter Rachleff and Beth Cleary have already replaced the roof on the building and are fundraising for a new HVAC system.

State Rep. Tim Mahoney, who represents District 67A, where the library is located, praised the two for their efforts.

“Honest to God, if Peter and Beth hadn’t come along and done all this work,” he said, “this might still be an empty building and deteriorating.”

 

‘Living their dream’

The building, constructed in the Beaux-Arts architectural style, is a Carnegie library that dates to 1917. There are three other Carnegie libraries in St. Paul that are celebrating their centenaries: the Riverview Library, located at 1 E. George St. on the West Side; St. Anthony Park Library located at 2245 Como Ave. W.; and the George Latimer Central Library located at 90 W. Fourth St.

The Carnegie libraries were built across the United States and the world with money donated by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, between the years of 1883 and 1929. 

In Minnesota alone, 66 Carnegie libraries were constructed, including an academic library at Hamline University; 48 of those library buildings remain standing today.

The current home of the East Side Freedom Library, located at 1105 Greenbrier St., ended up where it is because of the streetcar line that used to run along Greenbrier

Rachleff and Cleary said they dreamed of running a community space dedicated to labor and immigrant history for many years.

Rachleff, now retired, was a history professor at Macalester College; Cleary still works there as a dance and theater professor.

They began eyeing the building for their dream in 2013 when it became apparent a new space would be constructed for the Arlington Hills Library.

Katrina Hartz Taylor was the last manager of the Arlington Hills Library when it was in the Carnegie building. As she and others prepared to move to the new space, she remembers first meeting Rachleff and Cleary and watching their idea come into fruition.

“I met Peter when they were just starting to look at the place,” said Taylor, adding he and Cleary would come in and ask to see different parts of the building as they began to make their plans for the space.

“They would bring people over ... and ask ‘Can we just look around again?’ So it was kind of fun,” Taylor said.  “It’s nice that they’re kind of living their dream.”

 

For more information about upcoming centennial celebration events, go to www.eastsidefreedomlibrary.org.

 

Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto


 

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