Overdue Books

Gratia Countryman Society members Larry Leventhal, Steve Carter, and Andreas Jordahl Rhude at the Franklin Avenue branch
David Kern

Talk of building a shiny new central library in downtown Minneapolis far predates the long-running debate about constructing an open-air baseball stadium. According to Mary Lawson, director of the Minneapolis Public Library, serious discussion of the issue dates back 13 years. Plans are now taking shape for a library--to the tune of $123 million, drawn mostly from public sources--that would have much more room for the permanent collection out on the shelves and could help spearhead a revitalization of the north end of Nicollet Mall.

But one group of self-appointed library watchers has a question for the Minneapolis Public Library Board of Trustees: What about bringing better service to the neighborhood branches first?

For years library advocate Steve Carter has been raising his voice, writing letters and requesting reams of information on a host of library-related issues, usually centered on preserving historic buildings and improving public access, particularly in the city's poorer stretches. He has a soft spot for the Franklin branch, at 1314 E. Franklin in the Phillips neighborhood, which, he points out, has some of the shortest hours of any library in the city: It's open a mere 40 hours per week and is closed on Saturdays.

"Their basic game here is almost to discourage use of the library," Carter says. The Franklin branch, an ornate brick structure, opened in 1914--the first Carnegie library in Minneapolis. There's a homey ambiance inside that feels something like an old country club: a fireplace on the east wall, lots of natural woodwork, and cathedral-style windows. According to Bruce Benidt's The Library Book: Centennial History of the Minneapolis Public Library, it was the city's busiest throughout the 1920s, and was stuffed with Scandinavian books and magazines. Today the building is the oldest still in use. "These are beautiful buildings," offers Carter enthusiastically. "They're treasures."

Carter is founder and president of the 12-year-old Gratia Countryman Society, a loose-knit group named for Minneapolis's third head librarian. Countryman, who oversaw the system from 1904 to 1936, was something of a crusader for greater public access to libraries, and is quoted as saying that "libraries are not luxuries in a democracy." Carter's posse includes somewhere between five and ten folks at any given time, including local civil rights attorney Larry Leventhal. Leventhal, who sometimes drafts a letter to help Carter get library information, says of the hours at the Franklin branch, "They seem to be set only for the convenience of librarians, not for the public."

Hours throughout the Minneapolis system vary more than one might think. The central library is open 65 hours a week, while the small Pierre Bottineau branch in northeast Minneapolis is open only 39. The North Regional on Lowry Avenue North, the Walker branch in Uptown, and the Washburn branch in the city's southwest corner are open almost as much the main library: 60 hours a week. Those three, plus the East Lake branch, are considered "district libraries," which Lawson says house larger collections and serve a broader area. East Lake, however, is open only 48 hours per week. Lawson says that they've wanted to increase operations there but can't, because there's not enough money to cover the cost.

Carter charges that the central library is "far, far overstaffed" and believes that resources would be best used by the community outposts. Like the Franklin branch, the Roosevelt in south Minneapolis, Sumner on Olson Memorial Highway, and Webber Park in Camden are each open only 40 hours per week; none is open on Saturday. Those branches have evening hours only two days per week, but the tradeoff is that on those days the library doesn't open until one o'clock in the afternoon.

Lawson says they'd like to do more but are hamstrung by financial constraints. "The library and the library board always wish to expand hours. We would love to be open as many hours as possible in every location," she stresses. But she says given its budget, which has been flat in recent years, there simply isn't the money to do that. "If we expand hours at one branch, we may have to reduce hours somewhere else. We definitely need more money to be able to expand hours to any extent." Lawson notes that some evening closing times were pushed back by a half-hour this fall, from 5:30 to 6:00 p.m.

The library's 1999 budget was $19.9 million. Next year's is $19.8 million. Lawson says 75 percent of the budget goes for staff; in 1999 the library budgeted about $2.1 million for materials. As part of the drive to build a new downtown library, the board will also be seeking up to $26 million for improvements to many of the system's 14 branches, called "community libraries." But that money will go for bricks-and-mortar building improvements, not increasing staff or lengthening hours.

Funding for the new central library and for branch upgrades hinges on putting several pieces together. Next fall Minneapolis voters will likely be asked via referendum to pledge $60 million to $70 million in property-tax money to the project. Minnetonka-based developer Opus Corporation is kicking around plans to redevelop the area around the library site, possibly including a hotel, with tax-increment revenue. The library board is ultimately seeking some $25 million in state bonding from the Legislature, starting with a $3 million request next session for planning of the project. The board is doing a feasibility study to set a goal for raising private funds for the project as well. But plans are still at the drawing-board stage, and uncertainties abound.

As for Carter, he'd rather see the money plowed into the neighborhood branches. He believes that the hours and level of service need to be improved there before making a huge investment for a new downtown library. "Why don't you get this neighborhood library system going before the central library?" he wonders.

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