East Side Freedom Library marks 5 years

The East Side Freedom Library, located at 1105 Greenbrier St., is celebrating its fifth anniversary in June. To mark the occasion, it’s releasing a book about the history of the neighborhood and library, and on June 12, New Yorker staff writer and scholar Jelani Cobb will speak there. (file photo)

The East Side Freedom Library is celebrating its fifth anniversary in June. 

The labor and immigrant history library and community space is marking the occasion with a few upcoming events, including a release this summer of a book about the library and neighborhood, as well a discussion with journalist and Columbia University professor Jelani Cobb on June 12. 

As the library reaches its half-decade milestone, its co-founders and board are continuing to refine what the library does and the purpose it serves.


Humble beginnings

The nonprofit library was started in 2014 by co-founders and partners Peter Rachleff and Beth Cleary. Rachleff is a retired labor history professor at Macalester College, where Cleary continues to teach dance.

They began with a goal to create a community space where people could have conversations and learn from one another.

Today, the library houses a first-of-its-kind Hmong Archives and has cataloged and shelved more than 20,000 donated books. It’s hosted thousands of events, meetings and classes, as it serves as an intentional space for face-to-face discussions as an alternative to unpersonalized social media.

“It’s both amazing how much has been accomplished and how much has to be done,” said Rachleff. 

The library holds a number of events on an ongoing basis, like Saturday workshops for students to work on History Day projects, candidate forums, African drumming classes and community discussions. It also serves as a weekly gathering spot for a Karen women weaving group.

Organizers have also expanded out of its doors, helping coordinate Roseville History Book Club events at the Roseville Library.

As the library and its programming continue to grow and find success, there are other issues with which to contend. One of the biggest on Rachleff’s mind is the failing heating and air conditioning system that has long been in need of replacement. Earlier this spring, the library faced flooding issues in the basement, putting irreplaceable materials at risk.

The library is still working on establishing a capital campaign, something Rachleff said has been a much bigger undertaking than he’d expected, and may require an additional paid staff member. As of now the library has one paid associate director, its co-founders and a 13-member board of directors, along with numerous volunteers. 


Every day surprises

Over the past five years, Rachleff said one of the most surprising things he’s observed is the “degree to which people are willing to have difficult conversations.” 

Events like the discussion last fall about problematic murals inside St. Paul City Hall, where indigenous community members shared their reactions to the murals with public officials, have packed the library.

Rachleff said he’s been surprised by how popular the monthly two-hour reading club, Book Geek Happy Hour, has been. He said many people seek the intentional reading time, adding that visitors say it’s hard to “carve out those two hours to read on their own,” a sentiment he’s seen writ large. Folks are busy but crave real time for learning.

Clarence White, the library’s associate director, said what makes the space so unique and helpful, in an age of digital distractions, is that it creates real space for authentic conversations, something that can be hard to obtain on virtual social media.

“I learn something new [here] every day,” White said. “It can be overwhelming at times.”

White and Rachleff both said another irreplaceable thing that makes the library and its programming work are its volunteers. Beyond book donations, volunteers help catalog and shelve the books, even making the bookshelves on which they go. Others help with upkeep, like gardening or landscaping, or chip in to host events. 


Five years and beyond

As the library looks to the future, its main theme is expansion. Rachleff said some physical expansions may be necessary to make space for more books as the collection continues to grow. He said one idea is to knock down an old garage behind the library building to make more room.

The building, which was the Arlington Hills public library until it moved to the corner of Payne and Maryland avenues in 2014, is currently owned by the City of St. Paul. It’s rented for now, on a 15-year lease with a decade left.

The option to buy the space at any point is always out there, Rachleff said, and he’d like to see that happen, sooner than later. 

Another expansion could come through awareness of the library.

“We’ve barely broken through to national awareness,” said Rachleff, pointing out the library would like to make its Hmong Archives and other collections more accessible online.

As a non-circulating library, its materials stay within its walls, though Rachleff said making the online catalog more accessible would make it easier for researchers across the country and world to know what the library has to offer. 

With the upcoming release of the history book, Rachleff said the library is also considering getting into publishing, fulfilling a goal of not only storing scholarship, but helping create it, as well. He said publishing efforts could go beyond books and into oral histories, podcasts and videos — just about any form of recorded history.

Rachleff said the process of growing the East Side Freedom Library has been inspiring, whether its been learning from Karen weavers or watching people thrive and connect, despite their differences. 

“I like to sometimes joke that the building is haunted by good ghosts,” he said. “This building has meaning. It’s a building where people of different backgrounds would always come and have felt like it was their building all along.”

More information about East Side Freedom Library, located at 1105 Greenbrier St., and its events, can be found at www.eastsidefreedomlibrary.org.


–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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