In June 1922, the Minneapolis Public Library book wagon made its first trip from Minneapolis to Excelsior, a small village on Lake Minnetonka. Riding aboard the book wagon was Gratia Countryman, the library system's visionary director.
Born in Hastings, Countryman moved to Minneapolis with her parents, her sister, and two adult relatives in 1884, when she enrolled at the University of Minnesota. She joined the Minneapolis Public Library staff in 1889, just after her graduation from the university. As she worked her way up through the ranks at the library, she led a successful campaign for legislative support of public libraries throughout Minnesota.
By the time she was named the library's third director, in 1904, she had forged a reputation as an effective leader who worked tirelessly to expand the library's services. "How to reach the busy men and women, how to carry wholesome and enjoyable books to the far-away corners of the city, how to enlist the tired factory girls...these are some of the things which I conceive to be my duty for study, if I would help this public library to become what it is for," she wrote in her 1905 annual report.
Through Countryman's efforts, collections and reading rooms were carved out in Minneapolis fire halls, factories, and hospitals. She established an open-air reading area in Gateway Park at Hennepin and Nicollet and introduced the nation's first children's reading room at the main library. She also understood the importance of the library in the lives of immigrants. By 1914, the collection included books in twenty languages, and both the main library and the branches offered services for those who sought US citizenship.
In 1934, Countryman was elected president of the American Library Association. It was the worst of times for the nation's libraries—Depression-era budgets were being slashed everywhere. With characteristic determination, though, Countryman enlisted her 200,000 library patrons in a campaign for county and state support that would become a national model.
The following year, the Minneapolis Journal summed up her efforts: "Minneapolis loves and honors Gratia Countryman most because she traveled and tramped its streets in the early days to study the reading needs of each of its little outlying districts; because she has had thought for the bedbound, the povertybound, the trouble-bound, and has offered them her greatest solace, books; because she has believed and still believes that taking books to people who need them is her job; because she does that job with the sympathetic understanding which makes a book a benediction."
Benidt, Bruce Weir. The Library Book: Centennial History of the Minneapolis Public Library. Minneapolis Public Library and Information Center, 1984.
Pejsa, Jane. Gratia Countryman: Her Life, Her Loves and Her Library. Minneapolis: Nodin Press, 1995.
Stuhler, Barbara, and Gretchen Kreuter, eds. Women of Minnesota: Selected Biographical Essays. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1998.
In 1889, Gratia Countryman joins the staff at the Minneapolis Public Library, where she would work her way up through the ranks and become director.