About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Public libraries have been in most Minnesota cities since the establishment of those municipalities for the purpose of encouraging literacy among citizens. These libraries are furthermore supported by local government and staffed with qualified, albeit inadequately compensated professionals. Many cities similarly have historical organizations in them

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15 Responses to Public Library Model

  1. Mary Warner says:

    Bread crumbs, David. We are ducklings and can’t eat the whole loaf at once. You have asked several complex questions here, each deserving a separate response. I’m fairly new to blogs, but intuition tells me that they are more organic than email and people will not want to take days to think about their responses. We’re just too busy. In future posts, can you sprinkle your questions around a bit so we can digest them more easily?

    Now, I’ll take a minute to respond to the first couple of questions. I would be willing to bet that many of our county historical societies are already located in the town where our biggest libraries are situated. That town is most likely the county seat, so there is a historical parallel between libraries and historical societies, and it’s based on population. The higher the population, the greater a city’s services. The branching of historical societies and libraries seems to be following the same course. As populations grow in what were typically smaller county communities, citizens want these amenities on a local level and they will find a way to support them. This is a natural progression, one that doesn’t need to be forced. There are people in every community who understand the importance of both a library and a historical society or museum.


  2. David Grabitske says:

    What I meant to ask was whether or not Minnesota should adopt for historical organizations the way libraries are funded and staffed. Would it be beneficial to abandon the current system? Is it even a system, or merely a pattern? What intrinsic value is there in the current system/pattern vs. the way libraries do things? The current historical society system/pattern really began about 80 years ago.


  3. Mary Warner says:

    Oh that it were so easy to abandon a system, any system, once it was in place. We could fix the schools; we could fix the government – on and on.

    From my understanding, county governments are not legally allowed to operate their own museums. If you want to see history rewritten to benefit the victors, this will do it in a heartbeat. However, a county government may help to fund a county historical society. Some choose to give a monetary allotment, some give support by providing a building & utilities, some give no support at all.

    Libraries have typically been funded by city governments. This has shifted somewhat over the years, as regional library systems have been formed. In our area, the city provides the building, leasing it to the regional system. I believe that both the city and the county pay a per capita fee to support the regional system.

    There has certainly been more steady governmental support for libraries than historicial societies if you look at the issue from a state-wide basis. However, as government budgets get cut, so does library funding – thus, the necessity for Friends of the Library groups to supplement government funding.

    Of course, government funding begs the question of accountability, and this could be why there is a particular standard for staffing libraries as opposed to historical societies. The other issue affecting staffing standards in historical societies or museums is public perception. People think it’s just so easy to run a museum. Collect a bunch of stuff, display a bunch of stuff, wait for visitors. Nothing to it. Those of us in the business know better, but how do you tell a passionate collector who wants to open a museum that he’s got a lot more to worry about than arranging and dusting his trinkets?


  4. David Grabitske says:

    There are a couple of very good points Mary brings up here.

    1) Changing a system already in place. This point gets to the heart of what some people have been thinking, namely that to get the recognition due to history, that history organizations need to be more like their local library. I understand the motivation behind this thought, which is to avoid the example provided in Mary’s recent post. Perhaps the question that needs exploration is how do we as a community of historians create in the public mind the respect for the training we have and the quality of work that comes from professionals. Is a change in structure (to a public library model or other) needed to accomplish increased respect for the public? Is there some other way to achieve the same result?

    2) History being controlled by the government. This is likely the issue of which to be most wary. However, is history controlled to that extent in other states where the state historical society is a department of state? I realize just because history is not controlled to that level that there is always the possibility it might be. Independence should be valued, so I think this point is a good one to remember in this discussion. Well said, Mary.

    Lastly, the point about counties not being permitted to operate museums should be addressed. I am not a lawyer, but in reviewing Section 138 (History) and Section 373 (County Government) of the State Statutes, this layman does not see where counties are forbidden to operate a museum, either. Counties are authorized to own historic sites (138.586) and build and own war memorial buildings (373.053). In fact, one county in the state does employ the staff of the county historical society, effectively making it a unit of county government. Although nowhere enumerated in county powers (373.01) is operating a museum, it does not appear expressly forbidden, either. So, it seems to me that owning and operating a county museum would be at the discretion of the county government. See: http://ros.leg.mn/stats/ for more information.


  5. Mary Warner says:

    You’re right about there not being something specific in the law that says that counties can’t operate museums, but this may be a problem from another standpoint – that of funding. How many people are willing to donate money to a governmental unit to run a historical society? Also, how many are willing to donate artifacts? A governmental unit also can’t take membership dues. This is one of the reasons for separate Friends groups for libraries. Friends groups are nonprofit entities that can accept money to supplement governmental agencies.

    Aside from funding legalities, local experience has shown that it is difficult for governmental agencies to run historic properties. Part of this is a matter of priority. The roads and sewers and such take precedence over history and other cultural niceties because they are more noticeable from the view of the taxpayer. Funding to staff any historic site or museum is a huge expense, one that most governments (with their tight budgets) are unwilling to take on.


  6. Claudia Nicholson says:

    I’d just like to answer one small part of one question David asked–at least from my perspective. I spent 7 years in South Dakota as an employee of the State of SD, at the South Dakota State Historical Society, an agency of government. We were planning permanent interpretive exhibits on the state’s history for the entire time I was there, and I found in no instance was the interpretive work we were doing interfered with by anyone up the line. We had our own review committee of historians who vetted our interpretive plans and our exhibit scripts. I never recall one instance where a higher up state official told us to change something we intended to say. They didn’t even get a chance, as we sent none of this material up the line for review prior to an exhibit opening.

    I am guessing that it was due to the fact that the state government did not particularly value our work or feel that it was important (a proposed response to a huge budget crisis was closing the Historical Society, State Library, Public Broadcasting, and the Arts Council).

    But that’s only one state-run institution. Your mileage may vary.


  7. Mike Worcester says:

    Living and working in a city that has a branch of a regional library system, in this case Great River, some thoughts bear noting.

    In most cities that have a branch, especially outide the metro area, staff there are not employees of that city, but of the regional system. Some cities maintain a building, not charging rent, while others do have a lease agreement. The hours those branches maintain are set by headquarters, not by the branch librarians. It becomes a centralised operation.

    Is this what we would like to see? Or am I mis-reading what people are advocating.



  8. David Grabitske says:

    That’s precisely the point. Should local history museums operate the same way local libraries do? Would we be better off? I was not aware of the regionalization, but that makes sense and adds an interesting wrinkle to this discussion thread. What would a regional organization look like that operated history museums in certain cities? Would history museums as operated now lose too much in the exchange for more stabile funding, professional staff, etc.?


  9. Mike Worcester says:

    My recollection of the regional library systems, there are something like nine, the ones I remeber are:
    Great River (St. Cloud)
    Lake Aggasiz (Moorhead)
    Pioneerland (Willmar?)
    Kitchigami (Bemidji)

    These four cover large geographic areas. For instance, Lake Aggasiz (I know I am not spelling that right!) runs from the Canadian border to Fergus Falls. Great River includes the counties of Stearns, Wright, Benton, and Sherburne.

    Hennepin County has their own–independent of the Minneapolis system, and I believe so does Ramsey, along with Anoka, Dakota, and possibly Washington.



  10. Mary Warner says:

    Through regionalization, I believe we would lose our autonomy as far a programming, funding and collecting. A regional system would decide what was important, not the local museum. MHS has sites all over the state. Who makes the decisions for those sites? (I don’t think it’s the local folks, but, David, you can correct me if I’m wrong.) The other drawback is that funding for a regional system is always at the mercy of the tax payers & government. When funding dries up for the system as a whole, it is always the smaller satellites in the system that suffer. (Grand Mound is the example that comes to mind.)

    As far as the regional library is concerned, Little Falls belongs to the Great River Regional Library (GRRL), which is headquartered out of St. Cloud. Our city and county pay a hefty fee to belong to this system, yet there are certain benefits we do not get. For one, certain reference materials are only available at headquarters. They aren’t available through inter-library loan, so if there’s something a patron really needs that falls into this category, a trip to St. Cloud is in order. The GRRL is planning to build a new library in St. Cloud, but the other communities involved in the system have no say in this project as far as taxes and fees are concerned.


  11. David Grabitske says:

    Mary brings up an excellent point, as usual. If Minnesota were to adopt a system for local history museums that was like the public library system, local history museums could be trading local autonomy for other benefits. Is it worth the trade? If not, are there any lessons we can learn from library funding sources to improve the financial and professional resources for local history museums?


  12. Mary Warner says:

    I found out that our county pays somewhere between $350,000- $400,000 per year to belong to the GRRL system. This does not include the cost of our library building or the upkeep on that building and grounds. These costs are paid by each city that has a library in the county. (So, the City of Little Falls upkeeps the Carnegie Library in Little Falls; Upsala pays for its library, etc.)


  13. David Inman says:

    A couple of comments about libraries:

    1. While some of Minnesota’s Regional Public Library Systems use the consolidated model where virtually all administration is centralized at the HQ (Great River Regional in St. Cloud and East Central in Cambridge are two), others use a federated model where the individual member libraries are run independently with the regional HQ only providing system-wide services such as the catalog and courier. Traverse des Sioux in Mankato and MELSA in St. Paul are federated Regional Public Library Systems. The following page lists Minnesota’s 12 Regional Public Library Systems and describes what model they use and more. <http://education.state.mn.us/mde/Learning_Support/Library_Services_and_School_Technology/Minnesota_Libraries_and_Librarians/Regional_Public_Library_Systems/index.html&gt;

    Muddying the water a bit is that a federated system’s members may themselves be consolidated libraries. For example, the Waseca-Le Sueur Regional Library is a consolidated library serving Waseca and Le Sueur Counties (duh!) and is a member of the Traverse des Sioux Regional System. And, each of MELSA’s member libraries is a consolidated library (Mpls & St Paul Public Libraries and each of the seven metro area county libraries).

    Lastly, there are a handful of unaffiliated libraries (East Grand Forks and Taylors Falls are two) which are not affiliated with a Regional Public Library System and, hence, don’t get any benefits, such as reciprocal borrowing (which enables Minnesotans to use their library card at any library that is a member of a Regional Public Library System, i.e., at virtually any public library in the state).

    Having visited each of Minnesota’s 360+ public library buildings, in general, there’s more uniformity among branches of a consolidated system and there’s a wider disparity among libraries within a federated system. Each offers pluses and minuses.

    2. Probably the biggest difference between the way public libraries and local history museums operate is their funding source. Minnesota mandates that counties provide library service for all citizens so libraries are guaranteed a minimum level of funding (Minn. Statutes 2005, Chapter 134.341 <http://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/stats/134/341.html&gt;).

    OTOH, funding for local history museums by counties (Minn. Statutes 2005, Chapter 138.052 <http://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/stats/138/052.html&gt😉 and most cities (Minn. Statutes 2005, Chapter 138.053 <http://www.revisor.leg.state.mn.us/stats/138/053.html&gt😉 is merely something they are permitted to do.

    3. Concerning whether individuals are willing to donate money to a governmental unit, friends groups were mentioned as the conduit. As one of premier examples, the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library has assets of over $14 million and provided over $1.8 million in assistance to the SPPL in 2005 <http://www.thefriends.org/annual_report.htm&gt;. So, at least as far as libraries go, the implication seems to be that a well run friends group can attract donations from not only individuals but also from foundations.

    4. Lastly, concerning reference materials being only available at the HQ library, that’s true but: a) you should be able to get photocopies of needed pages via fax or courier (admittedly not the same as using the material yourself but saves time and money), and b) more materials should be available to more people at a lower cost than if every branch had its own copy of expensive materials.


  14. Mary Warner says:

    David Inman – You seem to have a lot of insider information on the state’s library system. (You’ve visited all 360+!?!) Might you be officially affiliated with the library system in some way? (Thanks for your post, btw. It was very informative.)


  15. David Inman says:

    Mary Warner asks "Might you be officially affiliated with the library system in some way?"

    Nope, only unofficially (as a patron).


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