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In 1859, a literary celebrity by the name of Bayard Taylor was touring the "Northwest" and offered to lecture before any literary or library society that would pay his way. A group of Minneapolis businessmen met to organize a library association to accommodate Taylor's visit. Taylor delivered his lecture, "Life in the North." The profits from his talk helped fund the association, which became incorporated in 1860 as the Minneapolis Athenaeum, a private subscription library. The Athenaeum remains an independent, nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to acquire, preserve, and make available to the public books and manuscripts in selected subject fields.
Lumber magnate T.B. Walker, who had joined the Minneapolis Athenaeum in 1877, led the way to make it more accessible to the public. In 1885 the Minneapolis Public Library was founded. The Library and the Athenaeum signed a 99-year contract (extended in 1985 with another 50-year contract) to share resources. In 1889, both institutions moved into a new building on 10th Street and Hennepin Avenue, sharing the space with the Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts and the Minnesota Academy of Natural Sciences. The first community library built in Minneapolis, North Branch Library, opened in 1894.
From 1904 to 1936, Gratia Countryman was head librarian of the Minneapolis Public Library. Due to her philosophy of outreach, collections and reading rooms were established in such places as Minneapolis fire halls, factories, hospitals, and an open-air reading area in Gateway Park. Several branch libraries opened, including the Seven Corners Branch, which became a haven for immigrants. By 1914, the collection included books in twenty foreign languages, and the libraries were instrumental in helping immigrants obtaining their citizenship. The Library opened to all residents of Hennepin County in 1915 and by 1916 there were forty delivery stations established around the county.
In 1922 the Hennepin County Library was officially organized with its headquarters housed in the Minneapolis Public Library. Gratia Countryman was the head librarian for both the Minneapolis Public Library and Hennepin County Library until 1925, when Ethel Berry became director of the Hennepin County Library. Until 1965 there was one library board for both systems. As the Hennepin County system grew, there were talks of a merger, and in 1971 a merger bill was introduced in the state legislature but died in committee. In 1974, the two library systems agreed to exist separately from each other but to work together through a shared metropolitan area library organization, MELSA (Metropolitan Library Service Agency), a federation of public libraries in the seven-county metropolitan area.
Four Carnegie branch libraries were built during Countryman's tenure: Franklin, Central Avenue, Sumner, and Hosmer. Meanwhile, the growing collection of the stately downtown library soon required more space. In 1915, the Society of Fine Arts moved to the new Art Institute in south Minneapolis. With the additional room and new wings added over the years, the library remained at this site until the Gateway Redevelopment program of the late 1950s, when construction began on a new library building at 4th and Nicollet, which opened its doors in 1961. By the 1990s, the collection had again outgrown the space, and a $140 million dollar referendum approved by Minneapolis voters on November 7, 2000 provided funds for a new Central Library and improvements to all fourteen community libraries. The library continues to develop collections, programs and services to meet the needs of new arrivals to the city as well as the population at large.
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