An increasingly high-tech world has put endless information at our fingertips. But the web can’t re-create the tactile, serendipitous experience of thumbing through the stacks at a local library.
That’s especially true at the state’s largest public library, Hennepin County’s glassy modernist Central Library in the heart of downtown Minneapolis.
It’s a great place to go browsing. But few know about one of its secluded corners — home to some of the library’s most obscure and fascinating items. Visitors must cross a bridge from the main reading area to reach the “government documents” section, which is packed to the brim with taxpayer-funded minutiae dating back to the state’s early history.
Those who pay a visit often have the room to themselves. (Note that it’s temporarily off-limits due to the pandemic.) It holds everything from the complete impeachment proceedings of President Andrew Johnson to 1960s plans for the future of the Twin Cities region. You can pore over manuals for military tanks, peruse City Council proceedings from the 19th century, or unfurl highway planning maps that shaped our modern metropolis.
So much has been filed away in this room that the shelves are bunched together on a rail system controlled by electronic buttons. Push one and the sea of books and documents slowly parts to allow visitors to walk through.
“It’s like your own personal museum,” says Grant Simons, who began visiting the government stacks as a teenager interested in the history of development in Minneapolis.
“If you like going to the Mia or the Walker and seeing old books, old artifacts from history, but you want to touch them and [absorb] yourself into them a little bit more, this is the perfect place to be.”
The collection is a mixture of federal, state and local — primarily Minneapolis — texts. Unlike normal library books, they cannot be checked out.
Officials in Washington, D.C., have been sending notable texts and books to the Central Library since it became a federal depository library in 1893, ranging from U.S. Census documents to the official report disputing rumors about aliens in Roswell, N.M. The library collected legislative documents from Minnesota’s early days as a territory, and was the depository for official state documents until those records went electronic in 2003.
Simons’ favorite find was a failed 1980s concept to transform downtown’s Block E into a glitzy “Pageant on Hennepin.” The document features line drawings of Hennepin Avenue transformed into a new entertainment district, replete with a casino, giant plaza spaces and a dominant “PAGEANT” marquee.
“It’s this huge plan for Block E and F,” Simons says. “And it’s in this little book that’s just with some other proposals from that time in Minneapolis.”
Similar finds include a faux “Minneaplus” cereal box created by city planners in the 1980s to market the city as a business destination. “High in daily business nutrition,” boasts the package, which features a drawing of runners beneath the city’s skyline. Tucked inside is a city land use map and informational pamphlets.
A couple of shelves away is a 1946 handbook for U.S. troops occupying postwar Germany, covering everything from lodging to venereal diseases. “You are going to be looked to by the Germans as a representative of American culture and democracy,” the book says.
Transportation geeks will find everything from a seminal 1957 report on proposed freeways in Minneapolis to long-forgotten diagrams of potential subway tunnels in downtown Minneapolis. Space enthusiasts can enjoy oddities published by NASA, including detailed multipart volumes like the “Planetary Flight Handbook” from the 1960s.
“The freedom to roam ... and let serendipity intrigue you to pull something off the shelf is the value of our stacks,” says former librarian Helen Burke, who oversaw the government collection for many years.
Burke’s favorites include the original Journals of the Continental Congress, which she says could have been held by one of the country’s Founding Fathers. Another favorite: a World War II poster drawn by Dr. Suess, warning people about the danger of malaria.
Burke says visitors often wanted to see the environmental impact statements that accompany big projects like light-rail lines or the Twins stadium.
“People are going to be interested in these topics long after the 90 days before a meeting is held and people are supposed to be informed,” Burke says.
Librarian Andrea Stelljes, who oversees the collection now, says there’s also interest in some of the Minneapolis Police Department reports dating back to the early 20th century.
“I know people use those,” Stelljes says. “Because I’ve seen those laying around to be reshelved. Those are things that have historical value.”
Groups of school kids visit the government documents area looking for primary sources for their school projects and National History Day research, Stelljes said. But the digitization of new records means the government stacks are increasingly frozen in time, a physical reminder of public life dating back to the state’s earliest days.
“More and more is published online now,” Stelljes says. “So the collection we do have in print I think is going to just be more historic.”