In 1959, an idea that had been discussed for several years became a reality when Pine, Isanti and Mille Lacs counties decided to join together to provide library services for residents in their areas. This marked the first time that multiple rural counties in Minnesota chose to pool library resources under one entity. Sixty years later, East Central Regional Library system, with its network of 14 libraries and outreach services in six counties, is celebrating a history of innovation, growth and service to the community as the longest operating regional library organization in Minnesota.
Although Pine County was one of the original three counties to support the creation of a regional library system, those involved with the Pine City library held off joining the consortium for many years, mainly for reasons having to do with funding and the desire for autonomy. The library in Pine City began in 1921 as a room in the Farmers and Merchants State Bank. It outgrew this space within a couple years and was moved to the power company building. According to records kept by the Pine City Library Association, in 1930, the library consisted of 1,600 books and other reading materials with a circulation of 3,539.
The library became municipal when the City included space for it in the plans for a new city hall, which was approved in 1938. Over the next forty years, the library remained city-operated, with Nancy Engel, Eleanor Hinze and Hildegard Elder serving as librarians. Adrienne Roubinek remembers visiting the library during this time and passing by the jail on the way in. “We always peeked around to see who was in there,” she said laughing, as she recalled a space that is much different than today’s dedicated, beautiful, welcoming setting.
Pine City Library ultimately joined the ECRL family in 1978 when a new city hall was built at the current library location across from Wiseman Park. Half of that original building was dedicated to the library, and Sue Sharp was hired as the new ECRL Pine City branch librarian shortly after. She served in that capacity until 1993. Library patrons during that time have fond memories of a vibrant, artistic and witty woman who always had a book recommendation and a smile.
When Sharp retired, Christy Koch took over and served as librarian for over seventeen years. During that time, she saw a multitude of changes and advancements, the biggest of which, she said, were the availability of materials statewide through the MNLINK services and automation of the library’s collection. Long-time library patrons will likely remember the transition from card catalog to microfiche and finally to a computerized system that was implemented in April of 1996. Library staff certainly recall a dreadful day in August of 2007 when all the bibliographic and patron information for the entire system suddenly disappeared! This left the library without a computerized system and the daunting task of recovering and reentering everything once a new system was in place.
Over the past 60 years, there have been other bumps and challenges for ECRL as well, mostly to do with politics, shortages of space and funding. As times and needs have changed, some services, such as the bookmobile and Mail-a-Book, have come and gone, but always those involved with the libraries in the system have worked hard to provide the best services they could for their communities.
In her time as librarian Koch also assisted with the efforts to raise funds for a larger library space. “We organized a renovation committee that covered fund raising and building design,” she recalled. “Margery and Bayliss Swanson worked on a matching grant from Peter Hudson in memory of his wife, Henrietta. That $200,000 dollars got us going!” The group held a number of events, many supported by local organizations. People in the community fondly remember the hotdish buffets. “They were extremely popular, delicious and lucrative for our efforts,” Koch agreed. “I like to say our library was built by noodle loving people.”
Koch and then mayor, Jane Robbins, also went to the local community organizations and clubs asking for financial support, and thirteen months later they had matched the donation, and building plans began for the space as we know it today – a space that Koch points out reflects the Pine City area. “The building and design committee, Judy and Brian Scholin and Max Blaufuss, worked to make our building reflective of the area with Bob Haedt’s beautiful woodwork, unique carpeting design, an original painting by Sue Sharp and a multitude of wall quilts.”
Karen Zemek, another familiar cornerstone of ECRL’s Pine City library staff, has worked there for 24 years. She agrees that the library has come a long way. She remembered the first time she entered the facility in 1968. “A library shock for me, from California, to walk into the old City Hall building with the library in just two rooms!”