This year the Franklin Library celebrates its 100th year serving the East Phillips neighborhood in South Minneapolis. In preparation for the anniversary celebration last month I researched the library’s long history by making my way through the branch’s annual reports and other documents from 1914 to 2014; this research has revealed a fascinating and intimate bond between a community and its library and a rich local neighborhood history.
2014 marks 100 years of service in the Carnegie library building at 1314 E. Franklin Avenue, but the library as an organization predates the building. It originally operated out of two rented rooms in the A.J. Bernier building at Franklin and 17th starting in 1890.
In the library’s earliest days the neighborhood was made up of Scandinavian immigrants, and a huge collection of Swedish, Norwegian and Danish books and newspapers was in constant demand. An influx of Jewish immigrants in the 1920s added Yiddish and Hebrew to the languages heard at Franklin; in these ways, the community has been reflected in the library since its earliest days. The effects of world events and community unrest were also visible in the library; the neighborhood’s men went off to fight in World War I, for example, and families kept their children home during the Spanish flu and smallpox epidemics of the late 1910s, affecting participation in children’s programs. Communities often show the greatest need for information and entertainment available through libraries during times of trial, and Franklin certainly followed this pattern during its early years. Despite being a very small branch library, Franklin often had the largest circulation numbers in the Minneapolis Public Library system.
The 1930s hit the Phillips neighborhood hard and the Great Depression’s effects of staggering unemployment and extreme poverty crept into the library as well. Budget cuts, little money for books, and few open hours meant that Franklin’s librarians struggled to serve the community. In these hard times, though, the neighborhood needed its library more than ever. The strong demand for books, programs, and a free community space caused the community to rally to keep the library open despite budget cuts in the early 1930s and prompted the Minneapolis Public Library administration to expand the library building in 1937.
World War II brought with it many changes: loss of neighborhood men to military service once again, women working in large numbers outside the home in local factories, offices, and stores, extensive rationing, and a focus on international events and the war. Franklin Library maintained a collection of current books and newspapers on world issues and served as a center for Red Cross work. By this time it was an established and trusted community space, and locals used the space to come together during this difficult time.
East Phillips and the larger South Minneapolis witnessed much development and heard the first rumblings of huge infrastructure changes in the 1950s. Franklin Avenue was widened and paved for the first time. Plans for the expansion of the University of Minnesota to the West Bank and construction of an East-West freeway (94) were underway. The neighborhood’s makeup was also changing dramatically: Scandinavian immigration had begun its decline in the 1930s and many of these families had moved out of the neighborhood. More and more African Americans and Native Americans were calling East Phillips home than ever before.
The 1960s were a time of incredible neighborhood upheaval and difficulty. Construction on highway 94 began in earnest in 1964, and was a painful process: extensive demolition of homes in the heart of the neighborhood, infrastructure changes , and freeway construction just 2 blocks north of the library forced many residents south or out of the area entirely. During this time East Phillips became a focus for federal and state housing projects to accommodate the displaced.
In response to all of this, the Franklin librarians recognized the need to rethink services and established a model of reaching out into the community. Connections and partnerships with other local organizations and institutions helped the library to reach beyond those who came to the building. This was also when the decision was made to relocate the Scandinavian language books to the central library branch stacks, making space to establish a collection of books on Native history and culture. This collection began as a way to commemorate the contributions of Native community leaders and grew continuously in response to high interest in books on American Indian topics like history, culture, social issues, and art.
By 1970 a new freeway cut through the neighborhood, residents were moving from homes to housing projects, and crime was increasing. Throughout the decade the American Indian community responded passionately, spearheading efforts to lift the neighborhood out of this depression. Franklin Library created partnerships with Native and other organizations in its efforts to get services and resources into the hands of community members, and offered community and meeting space to groups like the American Indian Movement. The library also established the experimental Neighborhood Information Center in 1974, which provided assistance around topics like housing, daycare, health, employment, legal assistance, alcoholism, and other topics. The library was renovated again in 1979 to increase capacity and remove physical barriers to differently abled patrons.
In the 1980s condemned buildings were numerous, violent crime was on the rise, and residents moved out of the neighborhood in droves; in many ways the hard luck story of the 60s and 70s continued, with the difference that the community had built a strong network of support organizations in previous decades. Redevelopment projects took place along Franklin Avenue, residents established local businesses, and community spaces that celebrated the diversity and cultural identity of the neighborhood, especially its Native populations, took shape. Franklin Library was the community’s anchor as East Phillips rallied to rebuild and restore itself. The Franklin Learning Center, a space offering one on one adult tutoring on topics of English language learning, GED study, and citizenship test preparation, opened in 1989 in response to the needs of local populations, particularly the new influx of immigrants to the area.
The library as we know it today really began to take shape in the 1990s. Technology was an important focus: the first computer circulation system was installed at Franklin in 1986, but it wasn’t until the late 90s that there was access to the World Wide Web via a staff computer, then two public computers, and finally the Phillips Technology Center computer lab in the lower level of the building. The Homework Help program began with a U of M student as its sole tutor and was an instant success; since its inception the program has addressed the needs especially of immigrant families seeking tutoring support for their children. The Franklin Learning Center’s ESL, GED, and citizenship classes were full, and the library’s basic education resources expanded in response to these needs.
The American Indian section, the only collection of its kind in the library system, continued to expand and circulate, and the library was chosen to be the site of an Honor Village for its service to the Native community. By 1995 the largest single group using the library was Somali, and with a growing Hispanic population, Franklin responded again by expanding world language collections. Since then the Spanish, Arabic, Amharic, and Oromo collections have grown and the Somali collection became the largest of the local libraries. Franklin continues to develop these collections that directly reflect community members and community groups have responded with enthusiasm.
In 2000 Franklin Library was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and was renovated in 2005 to improve technology resources in the building and preserve its historic facade. News of the closure prompted community members to establish a Friends of Franklin group which raised enough money to rent space in the Catholic Charities building next door in order to keep a miniature interim library open for the duration of the building renovation. The grand reopening of the “new Franklin” was a joyous celebration of the renewal of this historic space.
In 2008 the Minneapolis Public Library system merged with the county, and so the Franklin Community Library became Hennepin County Library-Franklin, offering expanded services alongside the collections that had served the community for many years. 2008 also saw the start of the Teen Center; the library was constantly flooded with youth who had no other dedicated community spaces to be, and a series of listening sessions and needs assessments yielded a space designed for teen interests. Over 100 teens used the space every week, participating in club activities like Urban 4H and Young Achievers and doing art project, gaming, and hanging out during unstructured open times after school. The library has since established its Teen Tech Squad, which employs neighborhood teens to design and lead workshops on technology topics in the Teen Center.
The Franklin Library continues to be a well used community institution. Not only does the library offer access to media, classes, and technology, it acts as community center and free community space. In the last century Franklin has weathered wars, epidemics and depressions; neighborhood upheaval and dramatic change; times of hard luck and rebirth. The library has grown up with the community through both good and bad; its history offers insight into libraries as cultural and community spaces.
Thanks for this! Libraries are so important for connecting people with information and with each other. Wonderful to read how Franklin Library has evolved along with its community and changes in technology. Also fun to read how the library history through its annual reports is a history of what’s happening in the wider world as well as its neighborhood.