New book describes the history of public libraries, with a local angle

“Reinventing the People’s Library,” released in conjunction with the East Side Freedom Library’s fifth anniversary, ties the Arlington Hills Library building to local, state and national history. (courtesy of the East Side Freedom Library)

Published as a part of East Side Freedom Library’s 5th anniversary


As a part of the East Side Freedom Library’s fifth anniversary, the library released a book documenting East Side history, the library building’s relation to the public library system and how it all ties in to larger national history. 

“Reinventing the People’s Library” was written by Greg Gaut, a retired St. Mary’s University history professor, who wrote a similar book about the Winona Public Library.

During a July 18 reading event at the library Gaut discussed the history covered in his book and how public libraries, especially their creation in St. Paul, were tied to a number of historical and cultural movements. 

“It’s a local story that connects with all sorts of bigger stories, national in scope. And this single building has played and continues to play a role in many of these big national stories,” said Gaut. 


Public libraries: a new idea

Gaut said the book begins by explaining how the idea of public libraries is relatively new in human history, an idea that started being pushed in the late 1800s. 

At that time, libraries were subscription based, meaning that a user had to buy a membership, and libraries struggled to make ends meet. Libraries at the time also didn’t have open floor plans, so there wasn’t much for book browsing — a user would go to a desk, request a book, and an employee would go into a large, closed-off storage area to retrieve it.

As lifestyles began to change and Midwesterners looked toward East Coast culture, Gaut said local advocates began establishing groups to fundraise and lobby for state laws that would allow cities to raise taxes to create public libraries. 

Organizations like the St. Paul Library Association would bring in lecturers, ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass among them, to raise funds for library materials. 

As the city established its public library system and unique neighborhoods like the East Side began forming, citizens sought ways to bring the downtown library into their own neighborhoods, creating library branches. 


Branching out

To pay for its library branches, the City of St. Paul reached out for grants from Andrew Carnegie, the steel giant and philanthropist who at the time was funding the creation of public libraries, mainly in rural areas. 

Carnegie paid for 65 libraries in Minnesota, three in St. Paul. Those three branches, which the city received $75,000 to build in the early 1900s, included the Arlington Hills branch, which is now the East Side Freedom Library, as well as Riverview Library on the West Side and the St. Anthony Park Library. 

Gaut said the neoclassical architecture of the libraries was a fad of the early 1900s, involving columns reminiscent of Greek and Roman buildings, as well as a focus on maintaining symmetry throughout the structure.

The libraries were built under the direction of St. Paul city architect Charles Hausler, who’s also known for building the Como neighborhood’s St. Andrew’s Church, which is slated for demolition.

While Hausler had some freedom designing the library exteriors, the Carnegie grants laid out specific rules for their insides.

The grants said they needed to have open floor plans with books out on shelves for patrons to browse. The plans were also intentional about leaving areas for children’s books and creating basement lecture spaces, all new ideas for libraries at the time, Gaut explained. 

The three libraries were built in 1916, opened in 1917, and continue to be used as libraries today.


Adaptations over the years

The rest of Gaut’s book describes the ebb and flow of the libraries over the past 100 years, how the library system has dealt with numerous financial strains and how libraries have adapted to new technologies in the 21st century, especially providing internet access for patrons. 

He said of the 65 Carnegie libraries built in the state in the early 1900s, about 40 remain, half still used as libraries and the other half repurposed as art centers, municipal buildings or commercial spaces. The libraries that didn’t make it were tore down.  

For the Arlington Hills Library, the threat of its loss became real when the city decided in the mid-2000s to build a new library and community center for the area.

Gaut said because of the unique floor plans of Carnegie libraries it can be hard to repurpose them for anything other than library use. He said the worst thing for the buildings is to leave them empty and unused since they fall into disrepair quickly, leading to eventual demolition.

He said when the Arlington Hills Library was put up for sale in 2014, with very little interest, “It was a dangerous situation for the neighborhood and the building.”

However, that same year longtime East Side residents and partners Beth Cleary and Peter Rachleff had the idea to create a community space and library where neighbors could learn from each other and engage in face-to-face discussions. 

The two established the East Side Freedom Library nonprofit and signed a 15-year lease for the Arlington Hills Library building with the City of St. Paul and opened their new library in 2014. 

Gaut said the East Side Freedom Library, which contains the first-ever Hmong Archives, continues the tradition of public libraries serving as free spaces for all citizens — a physical form of democracy. The library holds numerous community forums, discussions, book readings and youth activities and has a collection of more than 20,000 materials.

“Their idea allowed them to contribute to a renaissance of the East Side,” Gaut said.

Copies of “Reinventing the People’s Library” can be purchased for $15 at the East Side Freedom Library, located at 1105 Greenbrier St.


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at

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