Ask Peter Rachleff and his wife, Beth Cleary, to explain their goal of helping people connect to the history of their community and they begin to answer with a tour.
At one side of the main room at East Side Freedom Library is a new collection of Hmong textiles, musical instruments, books and tools. On the walls leading downstairs, there’s a mural showing centuries of Dakota, European, Southeast Asian, Latino and African-American migrations to the East Side. Another mural showing the history of St. Paul’s labor movement is in the basement.
To Rachleff, a retired Macalester College labor history professor, and Cleary, who still teaches theater and dance at Macalester, this old library is a place where the history of immigrants, of labor, of feminism, of jazz and of African-Americans in Minnesota comes alive.
“This is utopia. It’s just great,” said Rachleff, who founded the library with his wife in 2014. “It’s much more than we imagined.”
Built in 1917, the former Arlington Hills Library was one of three St. Paul libraries built with money from the late industrial tycoon Andrew Carnegie to bring literature and knowledge to the people. Vacated by the city in 2014 after a shiny new library-community center opened nearby, the building seemed perfect for East Side residents Cleary and Rachleff to realize a decades-long desire to combine theater and labor history into a lasting archive and public resource.
They formed a nonprofit that has a 15-year lease with the city, for $1 a year. They write grants and scrounge up the necessary resources to keep on the lights and heat — about $4,000 a month. Rachleff admits worries over the library’s 35-year-old boiler, which would cost about $300,000 to replace, keep him awake at night.
While the public cannot check out books or other materials, everyone from schoolkids and book clubs to researchers and archivists are welcome to come and explore six days a week. Rachleff said they hope to someday buy the building and pass its operation on to a new generation of community historians.
The Freedom Library has hosted more than 100 events and approximately 6,000 visitors, Rachleff said. Upcoming and past events include weekly meditation workshops, as well discussions on flight attendant activism, a history of Haiti, women workers during World War II and a documentary about history and volunteerism on the East Side. Every Saturday, tutors work with students preparing projects for Minnesota History Day.
“We want people to be inspired to make more lasting connections with the people they may meet here,” said Cleary.
Said Rachleff: “We also want future generations to know their stories.”
Rachleff, who still teaches classes at Metropolitan State University and the University of Minnesota, spends about 70 hours a week at the library. Cleary, who is still a full-time faculty member at Macalester, puts in many hours as well. “It’s hard work,” Cleary said. “But also very pleasant.”