Guest Post for CMLE Reads Across MN: Gratia Countryman

Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, and it also has many interesting books. In this series, we are sharing some of the books we like from Minnesota, or Minnesota authors.

We are mapping our literary journey around Minnesota, so you can see all the interesting places where our books are set. Follow our progress on our Google Map, accessible by clicking that link or searching for the title CMLE Reads Across Minnesota!

This is a guest post from CMLE member Violet Fox. Want to write a book review for us? Let us know!

If you’re a library worker in Minnesota, you definitely need to know about Gratia Alta Countryman! Gratia Countryman: Her Life, Her Loves and Her Library by Jane Pejsa, is a biography based on Countryman’s correspondence, effectively conveying the dynamism of this impressive woman.

The biography is also a great way to learn more about Minnesota history, as Pejsa takes care to provide context about the significance of Countryman’s actions. Gratia’s father took a chance on settling the family in Nininger, a heavily-marketed “dream city” whose founders hoped would become a regional hub and maybe even state capital. The Panic of 1857 ended this dream and Gratia’s family struggled, though Gratia’s parents worked hard to provide opportunities for their children. Eventually Countryman attended the University of Minnesota, where she and friends founded “Company Q,” a military drill team for women, after objecting to the fact that the U didn’t offer any options for physical education or sports for women.

Based on her initiative at the U, Countryman was hired in 1889 as a library assistant for the brand-new Minneapolis Public Library. Her work creating and organizing the library’s catalog earned her a place as Assistant Librarian, and in 1904 she was voted in by the library board to the position of chief Librarian. She was the third Librarian of the Minneapolis Public Library and the first woman to head a major library. Her salary was one third less than her predecessor, reflecting the qualms of the board in promoting a woman to such a high position.

In her work she found a common mindset with T.B. Walker, founder of the Walker Art Center and president of the Minneapolis Public Library Board, as they both believed that the library should not be reserved only for “serious intellectuals” but should look to serve the common citizenry. Her efforts in expanding library services included supporting reading rooms in places where destitute people congregated as well as placing small circulating collections of books in businesses throughout the metropolitan area, to encourage workers to read. Countryman was well-respected locally and nationally as an effective leader in her long tenure as head of the library, from 1904-1936; she served as president of the American Library Association in 1934 and received the first honorary degree awarded to a woman by the University of Minnesota.

Read the Pejsa biography to learn more about the “library mafia” that Countryman established in library leadership (she relied heavily on her circle of friends to fill open roles), as well as her close relationships with women and her very sweet relationship with her adopted son. And follow along as “Gratia” tweets about Minnesota library history at her new Twitter account @MnLibHistory!

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