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A New Library for a New City

Imagine a world with no internet, television, radio, Facebook or Twitter. How would you keep up? Acquire knowledge? Stay connected with the wider world?

If you came to this outpost town beside the Mississippi in the 1850s and 1860s, you had many challenges. First you needed paying work, sources of food, a place to live. Then, when you were settled, you would seek information: what was going on in the world? Who was leading the country? What was happening in the Civil War? Newspapers helped track these events, but newcomers also needed books—precious and expensive—to educate themselves and their children.

Some settlers may have brought a few books with them. Among those would surely have been a family Bible. The need for more was met at first by L.W. Stratton, a storekeeper in St. Anthony, whose Farmer’s Exchange offered popular novels, magazines and newspapers from the East. But books about nature, history and literature were scarce.

Minneapolis Athenaeum building in 1886. Source: Hennepin History Museum Collection

The Minneapolis Athenaeum

Serendipity intervened in the spring of 1859 when a nationally known newspaperman and author named Bayard Taylor planned a speaking tour. He put out the word that he would lecture before any literary society that paid his expenses plus a small fee. His offer spurred a group of young businessmen to organize the “Young Men’s Library Association of Minneapolis” on May 16. Taylor arrived just one week later to give his lecture. By the time he was paid, the remaining $74.50 would become seed money for the first genuine circulating library in the city. Spurred with enthusiasm, the group adopted a constitution, wrote bylaws, established a board of directors and chose a new name: the Minneapolis Athenaeum.

In January 1860, the Athenaeum was open for business. (The word “Athenaeum” derives from a sanctuary in Athens dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena, patron of wisdom and the arts.)

Charter of the Athenaeum Organization, January 1860.

Sources: Hennepin County Library and the Minneapolis Athenaeum

The Minneapolis Athenaeum was not the “free” lending library we know today. It was a private organization funded by members who bought shares for the privilege of using the reading room and borrowing books—two books for two weeks—for a small fee. These shareholders were people of some means. Non-members could take advantage of the library for a bigger fee—ten cents for six days or one dollar for three months. The system worked, and the library grew. For many residents of the city, however, books, even those borrowed for a small fee, were a luxury.

The Book Merchant, The Dentist and The Lumber Baron

Three men who lie buried at Lakewood were instrumental in launching and growing the Athenaeum and expanding its reach to the all citizens of Minneapolis. They were bookstore owner Thomas Hale Williams (1814-1901), dentist Kirby Spencer (1805 – 1870) and Thomas Barlow (T.B.) Walker (1840-1928), lumber baron, art collector and founder of what we know as the Walker Art Center.

Thomas Hale Williams, First Librarian.

Sources: Hennepin County Library and the Minneapolis Athenaeum

Williams offered space for the Athenaeum in his three-year-old bookstore, becoming, by default, its first librarian. He already had his own circulating library of “light literature” but he respected and guided the fledgling, scholarly Athenaeum. Its reading room and book collection would remain in his store for eight years. It was slow going at first: in its first year, the Athenaeum owned just 300 books. The board of directors decided to seek new members and solicit contributions of books, maps and charts. The library began to grow—and outgrow its space in Williams’ store.

The Athenaeum Building at 215 Washington Ave. in Minneapolis.

Sources: Hennepin County Library and the Minneapolis Athenaeum

By 1865 plans were laid to build a permanent home for the growing collection. A lot was purchased at 215 Washington Avenue in what was known as the “Centre Block” in the business district. Construction was completed the following year. To make sure the plan was sustainable, the Athenaeum wisely rented space to a bank, a post office and an “eating house.”

In its new location, the book collection and reading room remained under Williams’ watchful eye for 20 years. He was well suited to be the city’s first official librarian. He had a love of order as well as a love of books. He must have rejoiced in the newly created Dewey Decimal Classification (aka Dewey Decimal System), published by Melvil Dewey in 1876. Though the Athenaeum now had a new home in its own building, some members felt it wasn’t being supported well enough and hadn’t added enough books to its collection. The group again called for new members, especially those with the financial means to support it.

Kirby Spencer, dentist and patron of the Athenaeum.

Source: Hennepin County Library and the Minneapolis Athenaeum

The Gift That Keeps On Giving: The Kirby Spencer Trust

The answer came from within its membership. Kirby Spencer was a dentist who lived alone in a large white house on Washington Avenue. No one knew much about him, where he came from, if he’d ever been married, who his family was. In his obituary, the Minneapolis Tribune wrote that he was a well-read man who possessed a great amount of scientific information. He seemed enthusiastic about it: he invited his patients to look into his microscope and watch the blood circulating in the foot of a frog. He was considered odd, eccentric, “a very peculiar old gentleman,” the Tribune reported. Dr. Spencer’s will specified that for two days after his death his body was “to be left in the place and position” in which it was found. Some thought he wanted to make sure he was truly dead before he was buried.

Odd, yes. Something of a recluse, yes. But he was a member of the Athenaeum and a friend of librarian Thomas Hale Williams. And he was a believer in the benefit of books to the community.

When Spencer died in 1870 at the age of 65, he placed his property in trust, with the proceeds to go to the Athenaeum. It included real estate on Washington Avenue: his office, his house, and two store buildings. The property was valued at $20,000 and the income it generated each year funded the Athenaeum’s growing library. He stipulated that the funds be used to purchase only serious books—not popular fiction—and no books on religion or theology because he was an agnostic. Spencer’s bequest helped create the scholarly library that was—and still is—the backbone of the Athenaeum’s collection.

A Library for Everyone

Over the next decade, some members began to propose that the larger community should have access to these valuable and useful volumes. Even the basic philosophy of the Athenaeum was questioned. Should it continue to be a scholarly preserve for serious inquiry? Or might it open its doors to community members who just want to read? Could the Athenaeum serve all the reading needs of Minneapolis, whose population had grown to more than 30,000?

The discussion went on through the decade until 1877, when Thomas Barlow Walker, lumber baron and art collector and a member of the Athenaeum, launched a campaign to make the library more accessible to all citizens of Minneapolis. Though a rich man, he respected common people and believed they should enjoy the benefits of a library. He also kept his mansion open to the public so ordinary people could see his art collection. Instead of fencing in his yard, as most people of means did, he provided benches under his trees and welcomed citizens to use them.

T. B. Walker, lumber baron, art collector, lover of learning.

Sources: Hennepin County Library and the Minneapolis Athenaeum

Walker was a force to be reckoned with and he didn’t give up. He persisted for 10 years, going head-to-head with librarian Thomas Hale Williams. Williams was the champion of systems and order, and Walker was in many ways his opposite. He seemed to thrive on growth and change. His ventures in lumbering were volatile; he got out of the business temporarily around 1873 but four years later jumped back in. He went to California in pursuit of business and before long he was called the “Pine King of the West.” By the turn of the century he would become one of America’s ten wealthiest men, his fortune earned from timber turned to lumber by the sawmills on the banks of the Mississippi. A man of seemingly boundless energy, he took a strong interest in the new library even as he was building his fortune.

To bring about the changes he envisioned, in 1877, through political maneuvering, he helped elect a new board of directors, which in turn went about changing the library’s hours, its fee structure, even the arrangement of the books and furniture. Librarian Williams opposed Walker’s plans and said so in a letter published in the Pioneer Press: “Why should people have books to read free any more than bread to eat?” But Walker believed that the Athenaeum’s books should be available as freely as possible to the wider community. Walker and the new board prevailed, and Williams resigned in 1880. (Richard Laine, a professor of history and French at the University of Minnesota, took the post until 1884, when he was succeeded by a New Yorker named George Putnam.)

Library, Science Museum, Art Gallery and Art School

That decision paved the way for another change. In 1884, The Minnesota Academy of Sciences proposed to the Athenaeum that their two organizations join with the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts to construct a building that would hold all three organizations. In November, the three cultural institutions proposed to the Minneapolis City Council that they work together on a new building that would house a public library, an art museum and a science museum. The Athenaeum agreed to sell its building and direct the proceeds toward the new building, and to place its books there.

Postcard featuring the first Minneapolis Public Library at 10th Street and Hennepin Avenue. Sources: Hennepin County Library and the Minneapolis Athenaeum

On September 1, 1885, the Athenaeum’s director and shareholders signed a 99-year contract with the Minneapolis Public Library. The contract provided that the Athenaeum would move to a new building at 10th Street South and Hennepin Avenue. Ground was broken in 1886, and in 1887, George Putnam was appointed librarian of the soon-to-be-opened Minneapolis Public Library. T. B. Walker was active in negotiations with the city authorities and the Athenaeum board of directors unanimously elected him its president. When the transition to the new institution was complete, he became a director of the Minneapolis Public Library governing board.

The story of the Athenaeum does not end there. In fact, the Athenaeum exists today. It is a separate nonprofit corporation dedicated to acquiring and preserving books and manuscripts and making them available to the public. The 99-year contract signed in 1895 was extended in 1995. In November 2011, after the merger of the Minneapolis Public and Hennepin County library systems, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution recommitting to the relationship with a no-rent lease of space to the Athenaeum in the Minneapolis Central Library.

The Athenaeum room in the Special Collections area on the 4th floor of Central Library is well used by students and researchers on many subjects.

And Kirby Spencer’s legacy lives on. At the time the Athenaeum merged with the Minneapolis Public Library, the value of his bequest of property was approximately $200,000, equal to about $5 million in today’s dollars. The Athenaeum collection includes many volumes purchased with the legacy of Spencer’s bequest, including the Spencer Natural History Collection, which is named for him. These precious books are notable for the many hand-colored plates and early printed descriptions of the world’s birds, plants and insects. Much of the collection dates from the 17th through the 19th centuries.

Special Collections Librarian Bailey Diers holds one volume of Theatrum Botanicum by John Parkinson, published in 1640. One of many books acquired by Kirby Spencer’s bequest.

A Kirby Spencer bookplate identifies all books acquired with funds from his trust.

Sources: Hennepin County Library and the Minneapolis Athenaeum

Thomas Hale Williams lies buried at Lakewood in Section 5, lot 38, grave 3.

Kirby Spencer lies buried in Section 2, lot 192, grave 8.5.

T.B. Walker lies buried in Section 46, lot A, grave 31.

Article sources:

  • The Library Book: The Centennial History of the Minneapolis Public Library, by Bruce Weir Benidt, 1984.
  • “The Minneapolis Athenaeum,” by Betty L. Engebritson, Hennepin History, Volume 37, Number 4. Winter 1978-79.
  • “The Minneapolis Athenaeum: Its First 30 Years,” Leo Harris, Hennepin History, Volume 76, No. 2. Summer-Fall 2017.

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