Coleman walked the bowels of the MHS where underground the state archives are stored and seen Friday, March 23, 2012, Minnesota Historical Society Museum in St. Paul, MN.

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Patrick Coleman

David Joles, Star Tribune

TO DONATE: If you have any items that you would like to donate to the Minnesota History Library, contact Patrick Coleman at 651-259-3245.

To donate: If you have any items that you would like to donate to the Minnesota History Museum, contact Patrick Coleman at 651-259-3245.

Seeking scraps of Minnesota history

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON
  • Star Tribune
  • April 4, 2012 - 8:22 AM

Patrick Coleman scours newspapers, catalogs, magazines and the Internet to buy at least one thing every day for the Minnesota History Library's collection.

The 59-year-old bibliophile has been making purchases for the library's collection since 1978 -- everything from Indian treaties to multiple copies of science fiction novels written by a Minneapolis newspaper editor.

He recently made news when he tweeted his intent to bid on a poster of the Lindbergh kidnapping. Coleman's $750 bid wasn't enough, but a local collector provided a poster -- for free -- after hearing about Coleman's failed bid.

Coleman, who has a history degree (with an emphasis on the farm movement) from the University of Minnesota, scored his dream job shortly out of college. As the library's acquisitions chief, he's charged with documenting Minnesota culture and collects all manner of historical documents.

"If your church in Little Falls published a 75th anniversary history, I want it," said Coleman.

During a recent tour of the collection, a genial, enthusiastic and knowledgeable Coleman talked about a mythical island in Lake Superior, the most interesting person in the state and the one book he wishes he had in the collection.

Number of maps in the collection: 30,000, dating to the mid-1500s. "Two things we're particularly interested in are the development of knowledge of the lakes and the Mississippi."

Lake Superior's Isle of Pontchartrain: It doesn't exist, but one cartographer inserted it and other islands into a map to suck up to the islands' namesakes, his bosses back in Europe.

Minnesota's first author: Father Louis Hennepin. His "The Description of Louisiana" was published in Paris in 1683, describing his trip up the Mississippi River and the Indians who were his captors and/or hosts.

Extraordinary art: Eighty steel-engraved, then hand-painted images by Karl Bodmer of Indians in daily attire and war clothes. Bodmer accompanied Prince Maximilian von Wied on an expedition up the Missouri River in 1832-1834. His images of Indians such as Pehriska-Ruhpa, leader of the Hidatsa Dog Society, are considered the most beautiful and accurate.

Pleasant surprise: Touching these historical items is allowed.

Sweeter surprises: The intoxicating scent of a book printed in 1493. Said Coleman: "I don't want to come off as a perv, but smell this book."

Newspaperman: The library owns about 100 volumes of books by Clifford Simak, a science-fiction writer and former Minneapolis editor. "If we've got 100 things by this author you've never heard of ... " Coleman said.

Sinclair Lewis memorabilia: Photos from a picnic with his friends and a signed copy of "Cass Timberlane" inscribed to the judge whose life inspired the character.

Most interesting person in Minnesota history: Hands down, Coleman said it's Ignatius Donnelly. "He was many people in one: literary critic (he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that [Sir Francis] Bacon wrote Shakespeare); civil rights activist (he wrote a novel about a privileged white guy who wakes up black); scientist (he wrote a book about a comet striking Earth and killing much of the life here); archaeologist (another book proves the existence of Atlantis); and most of all, political reformer." (Leader of the Populist Party, he wrote the famous preamble to that party's platform in 1892: "From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed two great classes -- paupers and millionaires.")

More Coleman thoughts on Minnesota's best books:

Why the state paid $20,000 for a child's schoolbook on President George Washington's farewell address: There's an inscription by a 15-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald inside the cover. "Francis Scott Fitzgerald/ St. Paul/ Minn./ Playwright, Poet, Novelist, essayist/ Philosopher, loafer. useless/ disagreeable, silly, talented/ Weak, strong, clever, trivial. A waste. In/ short a very parody, a/ mockery of one who might/ have been more but whom/ nature and circumstances/ made less. With apologies/ for living./Francis Scott Fitzgerald."

Most eyebrow-raising guidebook: "Holies of the Holies, the White Slave Worshiper," a turn-of-the-20th-century guide to whorehouses in St. Paul -- with photos.

Coleman's deepest desire: A copy of "The Great Gatsby" in its original dust jacket. Coleman said when Fitzgerald saw the jacket, he wrote elements of its imagery into the novel.

Family ties: Coleman is one of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's older siblings.

Where to find him when he's not at work: a canoe.

His self-imposed limit of tweets per day: one.

(Follow him @PKColeman.)

What do boxed archives from Stillwater Prison, patient records from Faribault State Hospital and Joan Mondale's papers have in common: You need permission to get access to them.

Number of books that can be checked out of the library: Zero.

Price of admission to the library: Free.

State funding in 1987 for the purchasing budget: $40,000.

State funding in 2012 for the purchasing budget: $40,000.

Location: Minnesota Historical Society, 345 Kellogg Blvd. W.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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