(Originally published by Coffee House Press: In the Stacks)


CHP In the Stacks: An interview with educators and historians Peter Rachleff and Beth Cleary, founders of the East Side Freedom Library

CHP: What’s significant about the East Side that makes it the best location for this library?​

ESFL: For more than 150 years, immigrants have settled on the East Side, coming first from Sweden, Ireland, and Germany, more recently from Mexico, Southeast Asia, and East Africa. African Americans came from the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from midwestern cities in recent years. The East Side has provided them with affordable housing and access to jobs, from the railroads and construction in the 19th century to the service and healthcare sectors today. The East Side Freedom Library’s resources provide context for these experiences, while our programs encourage immigrants and the descendants of immigrants to tell their stories and listen to each others’.​


CHP: Has the process of building this collection shaped how you approach your work as educators?

ESFL: ​Our collections are unusual and rich not only in the historical accounts of communities whose experiences have often been overlooked or misrepresented by the narratives of the dominant culture, but also in the extent of stories told by people from within these communities – poetry, memoirs, fiction, plays, oral histories, visual art, and more. As co-executive directors of the East Side Freedom Library, we see ourselves as curating programs which bring resources together with people who are able to tell their own stories.​​ ​

CHP: When you set out to build this collection, did you have a vision for how artists, writers, and musicians might use it? Was there anything in particular that inspired this?​

ESFL: We were inspired by James V. Hatch and Camille Billops and their New York City-based projects, “Artist and Influence” and “the Hatch-Billops Collection,” which, for the past thirty years, have documented and promoted discussion of the work of people of color in the arts. Through our own experiences, teaching, doing research, undertaking political work, creating art, Beth and I had come to understand that artists produce knowledge which they communicate to diverse audiences in many ways. Getting to know Jim and Camille and witnessing their work gave us an organizational framework for the work we wanted to do. We are already collaborating with artists – playwrights, directors, and actors; poets, novelists, and essayists; painters, sculptors, and ceramicists; composers and musicians; storytellers; practitioners of traditional arts and crafts – who are finding inspiration in our space, resources in our collections, collaborators for their projects, and audiences for their work.​

CHP: Has having an artist in residency made you look at the collection any differently? 

ESFL: ​Being able to interact with Victoria, on the one hand, and Aaron Johnson-Ortiz, a visual artist who has also had a residency at the East Side Freedom Library, has helped us to understand the particular perspective and lenses that any/every artist brings to our project, from how they see the collections to how they see others who are using the Library in diverse ways. Both Victoria and Aaron have further convinced us that artists produce crucial knowledge.​

CHP: Who are the current patrons of the East Side Freedom Library?​

ESFL: Our patrons from diverse experiences, positionalities, and communities: East Siders, including the descendants of European immigrants and the newly arrived (Hmong, Karen, Mexican, Salvadoran, African American)​​; teachers, both from K-12 and colleges; students, particularly those pursuing History Day projects; seniors seeking to participate in life-long learning; labor activists and union organizations; peace and justice activists; community groups; theater companies; and more. ​

CHP: What’s next for the library? Any cool summertime or fall events? Any new collections forthcoming?​

In terms of collections, we are seeking to develop an innovative approach to opening access to the Hmong Archives, such as gathering narratives from elders about specific “paj ndau” or story cloths, and digitizing them to make them available on line. We are also expecting another major donation from Paula Rabinowitz, who is retiring from the English Department at the University of Minnesota. Her collection is rich in feminist literature and literary criticism.

On the programming side, we are hosting a book discussion group on the challenges of racism to public education, co-ordinated with the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers. 50 teachers have registered for this program, which will meet bi-weekly in June, July, and August.

We are also looking forward to some exciting evenings with authors – on July 20, Kao Kalia Yang will present a reading and discussion of her new book, The Song Poet; and on September 21, David Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine and the author of five books, including biographies of Muhammad Ali and John Carlos, will discuss the intersections between sports and politics; and in November-December, Peter Rachleff will join with Brian McMahon to teach a 6-week course sponsored by St. Paul Public Schools’ Community Education Program on the impact of Ford Motor Company on the history of Saint Paul. The course will use Brian’s new book (to be published by University of Minnesota Press in November), The Ford Century.​

CHP: What kind of opportunities for those who want to volunteer in support of the library’s mission?​

ESFL: We still need volunteer catalogers. There is much to do, particularly in the areas of VHS, DVD’s, CD’s, oral histories, manuscripts and papers, and material objects. We offer training to all volunteer​ catalogers, under the direction of Bruce Willms, the retired Dean of Library and Information Services at Metropolitan State University. We also need volunteer historical researchers. We are beginning to research the 100 years’ history of our building and its place in our community, with the intent of telling that story in time for our centennial in the fall-winter of 2017-2018. Peter Rachleff will be leading this project and providing training to researchers.

CHP: Are there other opportunities for artists you’d like to share?​

ESFL: We want artists to dream with us, to help us learn how might they use our space and how might they use our resources. We are open to artist-initiated projects, and we are open to collaborating with artists in all disciplines to secure funding for such projects.​

Peter and Beth will join CHP In The Stacks resident, Victoria Blanco, and artist-in-residence Aaron Johnson-Ortiz, for a conversation on art and archives on Thursday, July 28th at 7:00 pm. The event is free and open to the public. 

The East Side Freedom Library is located at 1105 Greenbrier Street, St. Paul, MN 55106.

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