Entries about Minnesota history from MNopedia are made available through a partnership with the Minnesota Historical Society and with funding from the Legacy Amendment's Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.

Minnesota’s traveling libraries brought books to the people

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Minnesota Department of Education exhibit for free traveling library, c.1925.

Before 1899, few Minnesotans had access to free public libraries. But in that year, the state legislature began funding a system of traveling libraries that were sent to underserved communities in all parts of the state for only the cost of shipping.

Librarian Gratia Alta Countryman first proposed statewide traveling libraries for Minnesota in 1893. She modeled her proposal after a similar program started in New York in 1892. The idea was simple: send fixed sets of twenty-five or fifty books on general subjects to communities that asked for them. The books would travel in one box that also served as their bookshelf once they arrived at their destination. Local librarians would supervise the books and pledge to make them accessible to the community for free for a period of six months. After that time, the set of books would be sent back and another set could be requested.

In 1895 and 1897, the state legislature considered bills to create traveling libraries, but neither passed. So women’s clubs in Hennepin County, Duluth, Mankato, and Rochester organized private traveling libraries along the proposed model, to show it could be done. The success of these programs helped to convince lawmakers that traveling libraries were a good idea.

A bill supporting traveling libraries in Minnesota passed in 1899. The legislature appointed a State Public Library Commission to oversee the project. Countryman, who later led the Minneapolis Public Library, was a member of the Commission from its start. The Commission’s first two jobs were to hire a librarian and buy books. It chose Clara Baldwin, a Minneapolis Public Library librarian, to manage the program. She spent the rest of 1899 getting the program organized for its kickoff in early 1900.

From the beginning, the state’s traveling libraries were popular. They were advertised only by circulars and notices in The Farmer and Farmers’ Annual magazines, but the first year, the Commission received 147 applications, more than it could fill. Of these applications, only twelve were from communities that already had a local library and were looking to supplement the available collection. The rest were from communities with no library access at all. Many communities requested two traveling libraries that first year, a pattern that continued for many years. Interested communities had to form a group of at least ten people and send a dollar to cover shipping costs.

Through its traveling libraries program, the State Public Library Commission hoped to encourage Minnesota communities to establish their own permanent public libraries. The Commission achieved this goal. Between 1899 and 1919, the year the Commission was officially disbanded and its responsibilities were transferred to the Library Division of the state Department of Education, the number of public libraries in Minnesota increased from forty-two to 153.

During that same period, the number of traveling libraries also increased, from thirty-three owned by private women’s clubs to 628 owned by the state. The traveling libraries expanded beyond fixed sets of books and eventually included collections of books on special topics, children’s books, and books in foreign languages. The lending service was broadened as well, and books were sent to schools, study clubs, farmers’ groups, and other organizations that requested them.

The demand for traveling libraries stayed strong into the 1950s, but limited resources and other pressures on the small staff of the Department of Education’s Library Division caused the program to shrink. Clara Baldwin, who rose from head of the traveling libraries program to director of the Library Division, had retired in 1936, and succeeding directors focused more on other services. Hannis Smith, who became director in 1956, took the Library Division out of the book-lending practice entirely and ended the state’s traveling library program.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 10/30/2012 - 12:36 pm.

    Chautauqua Scientific and Literary Circles (CSLC)

    Thank you for the excellent article on the beginnings of Minnesota’s libraries sharing principles. I spent 30 years living on a farm in southern Minnesota, pre-internet. The library sharing system was one of the ways I was able to get books for my children beyond what the local school and community libraries offered. Many times they needed materials for a report that were not available at any of the libraries in our area. But I could request them through the library “sharing” sytem and they would have what they needed.

    I would encourage you to also look at Blue Earth’s Mitchell Chautauqua Circle, a part of the Chautauqua Scientific and Literary Circles movement. The Blue Earth Circle is the oldest continuous chapter in the United States being organized in 1883. The original purpose of the Circles was to afford people, in rural areas especially, the opportunity to obtain an education equivalent to that of a BA degree by belonging to and following the curriculum of the Circle.

    Today it is a book club with the books being chosen by the CSLC head office in Chautauqua, NY. The books still largely focus on “academic” subjects such as history, biography, economics, science, etc. Since the 2002-03 year, more fiction is a part of the series of books.

    I found that in the many years I was a member that the book selections by CSLC were often prescient about topics that would become national interests or focal points of new scientific theories. I remember that we once attempted to read a book on string theory, a little beyond most of us. But we also focused on political, economic and environmental issues that in the next several years became the focus of much discussion nationally.

    I don’t know if there were other CSLCs in Minnesota, but I do know that the one in Blue Earth continues on as a source of much learning, discussion and friendships.

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