The East Side Freedom Library (ESFL) is home to more than 10,000 titles of exhilarating historical and contemporary working-class literature. These books are essential to understanding the history of the working-class community surrounding the ESFL. Throughout my internship at the ESFL, I have cataloged many interesting titles. However, one of the most captivating pieces of literature I have encountered is called They Chose Minnesota: A Survey of the State’s Ethnic Groups. I found this particular volume interesting because it compiles an eight year survey from 1973 to 1981 of sixty ethnic groups that chose to call Minnesota home. The diversity delineated in this book also reflects one of the ESFL’s main functions as a specialized library, which is to give voice to the many different ethnicities that have created such a vibrant and diverse community on the East Side of Saint Paul. They Chose Minnesota offers the reader a glimpse into that diversity. While this text examines Minnesota’s ethnic diversity on a macro level, I feel this piece offers a strong connection to the community based theme that is at the heart of the ESFL.
Another interesting aspect of They Chose Minnesota is that it offers the reader a snap shot of an epoch when many Irish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Italian, and Russian immigrants were coming to Minnesota and populating the East Side of Saint Paul. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of these ethnic groups chose Minnesota because of the similarity to their homeland and for the prosperity that Minnesota had to offer. The East Side of Saint Paul in particular was home to the Hamm’s Brewery, 3M industrial, Gillette, and many other local businesses that gave newly arriving immigrants a chance to succeed in their new home. While most of the work was labor intensive, these new residents embraced the opportunity to create a better future for their families and the East Side community as a whole.
They Chose Minnesota also discusses some of the South East Asian immigrants that came Minnesota during the 1970s and early 1980s. These ethnic groups included Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong peoples. Many of these immigrants first settled in Highland Park and the Summit-University area also know as Frogtown or Midway. This marked a very significant time for Minnesota, because up to that point, the majority of immigrants in Minnesota consisted of Europeans. As the 1990s approached, many South East Asian immigrants that had lived in Minnesota for nearly twenty years were now moving to the East Side of Saint Paul, thus creating a more diverse and vibrant East Side community than ever before.
They Chose Minnesota is simply one book out of thousands in the East Side Freedom Library’s special collections that “honors the unique life journeys and labor experiences” of the immigrants that give the East Side community its dynamic ethnic diversity and strong working-class history. Future patrons of the East Side Freedom Library will be able to experience the “living history” of the community and participate in multi-generational groups that strive to promote “activism” and positive “change” within the community by “generating new ideas through dialogue, creativity, and the arts.”
As the ESFL moves closer to its grand opening, preparations are being made to “assemble a volunteer research team” to capture the “oral histories” of the community and the people that are represented through the many works of literature and art featured in the library. Moreover, a specialized Hmong archives collection will begin taking its place in the ESFL as hundreds of works of Hmong literature will be displayed to represent the enormous contribution of the Hmong peoples to the prosperity and revitalization of Saint Paul’s East Side.
Events held at the ESFL will be centered around the theme of the specialized collections pertaining to labor and working-class history, so that a deeper understanding of the “struggles” shared by working-class individuals can be examined and understood in such a way that workers can “unite” and “take action.” Through these activities, the ESFL will “continue to build partnerships with labor groups and federations” to “provide opportunities for labor leaders to intersect with community stakeholders.” The ESFL eagerly invites learners of all ages to come in its doors and explore its resources.