by Nathan Warner
“There is no frigate like a book, to take us lands away,” Doug Ohman quoted Emily Dickinson as he began his picture slide of Minnesota libraries at the Handke Center in Elk River on Monday night, May 2. Ohman is touring the state promoting his new book, “Libraries of Minnesota,” which is a photographic guide to some of the state’s best-kept secrets, with stories written by seven of Minnesota’s best-known writers.
Seventy libraries are featured in the book, selected by libraries in the 12 library regions of the state. Ohman’s research for the book was commissioned by the Minnesota Historical Society and was funded through the Legacy Amendment, passed by Minnesota voters on Nov. 4, 2008.
Ohman grew up in Anoka and has degrees in geography and history. The research mentality of his education has served him well in his occupation. Of his 12 books, nine have been commissioned by the Minnesota Historical Society concerning a wide range of subjects including courthouses, churches, cabins and farm animals. His works seem like true cultural artifacts, capturing the past before it’s gone and raising awareness to save endangered treasures in the state.
Minnesota has a long and proud tradition of libraries. The oldest library in Minnesota still exists in Taylor Falls and is one of the smallest in practice. It was built in 1854 as a millinery shop, making hats for soldiers during the Civil War until it was converted to a library in 1875. The list of converted libraries is fascinating: breweries, churches, armories and grocery stores. The smallest library in Hennepin County was once a bank, while the smallest library in the state is a single bookshelf in a Godahl convenience store.
From 1896 to 1925, the number of libraries in America exploded from 900 to nearly 3,900. Much of the credit for this rests with the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who provided grants for the building of free libraries (open to the public free of charge). Many of the early libraries in Minnesota were built through Andrew Carnegie grants. Out of the 1,700 Carnegie libraries in the nation, Minnesota claims 65.
During the 1930s Depression, the Works Progress Administration built libraries to keep men in work, including one in Milaca in 1936 made of uncut stone.
Beginning in the 1940s, utility-minded architecture took over libraries, but Ohman says that shouldn’t fool you, “Sometimes, the insides are gorgeous.” Ohman terms a library’s inviting feeling the “coziness factor” and rates them by how many comfortable nooks, couches and fireplaces they have. The more old-fashioned they are, generally the more comfortable they are, but some of the newer libraries, like the downtown Minneapolis library, put their own spin on comfort with cafes and stunning architecture. “But the people in the library are just as essential as the architecture and the design,” he says, and includes many photographs of old and young library patrons in his book.
Ohman admits that new technologies such as the Internet and digital books are challenging libraries, but he feels libraries have always adapted to change and will continue to do so.
“Libraries are one of the single greatest democratic institutions ever invented,” he says, “where an uneducated citizen has access to a Ph.D education for free. They’re not going anywhere.”