Retiring with a legacy: Patrick Coleman has built the largest collection of Minnesota-related books in the world

·16 min read

Jul. 25—Patrick Coleman was driving through Duluth recently when he had a choice. He could have lunch or he could explore a used bookstore. Anyone who knows Coleman, lover of history, books and Minnesota, knows what he did. He went to the bookstore.

"I found Ole Rolvaag's copy of 'Early Candlelight,' " he says with a collector's glee of Maud Hart Lovelace's novel. "Rolvaag had corrected some of the printed text in the book. It was a good find. The stream of stuff never stops."

Coleman, who was 69 in June, has been Minnesota Historical Society acquisitions librarian for 43 years. "Librarian" is too confining a title though, since he's built the largest collection of Minnesota-related books and printed materials in the world. It's made up of 500,000 items, of which Coleman acquired about 100,000, including novels, biographies and poetry, as well as miscellaneous paper and artists' books.

He's also curator of 50,000 maps, including one from 1814 showing Lewis and Clark's track across the western portion of North America from the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean, and the 1688 French Coronelli map of Canada and Nuvelle France.

Now this tall, genial, self-described book geek is retiring and his friends and colleagues can't say enough about Coleman's legacy and his contributions to the MNHS collections.

Coleman's been called the Indiana Jones of collecting, perusing book fairs, auctions, church and school book sales, and used bookstores from Bemidji to Rome.

If he heard about a Minnesota-related book or object out there, Coleman would try to snap it up, from Bob Dylan's high school poetry to a first edition of Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" in Hindi, and a 1910 guide to St. Paul brothels.

"Pat is known and respected at historical societies around the country," says Rob Rulon-Miller, St. Paul used book dealer who has sold Coleman many books and items, as well as being his good friend. "Minnesota is one of the most active societies and Pat has a lot to do with that. He encouraged his superiors to let him travel and find things out of Minnesota in New York, San Francisco and other places."

Rulon-Miller, who's known Coleman since 1980, was instrumental in Pat procuring one of the gems of the collection, the 1858 Treaty of Washington. It's a hand-written agreement between the U.S. government and the Yankton Sioux, in which the tribe agreed to give up 11 million acres in exchange for money and a reservation of less than half a million acres. Purchased for $40,000 of private money, it is one of only two copies of the treaty in existence..

"I admire Pat's vision," Rulon-Miller says. "He's very astute at zeroing in on interesting material A year ago in Chicago I turned up a mimeographed book that had lots of original photos pasted in, about airplane construction in St. Paul during World War I. I showed it to Pat. He knew about it but had never seen the book." That little piece of Minnesota history is now safely ensconced in the MNHS collection.

The most expensive object Rulon-Miller sold Coleman is a small 17th- or early 18th-century globe, one of the first to show the headwaters of the Mississippi and what is now Minnesota.

Those who know Coleman marvel at how he lives his job.

"He has no on-off switch," laughs Lori Williamson, Historical Society collections and library outreach coordinator, who works most closely with Coleman and has for 20 years.

"Pat's identity and his job are so intertwined," she says. "Even on vacation he's always looking for Minnesota places we haven't heard of. He's very smart and willing to share that knowledge. He wants to help you know more. He thinks deeply about things and has this blend of cynical and deeply caring. And he's a true Irishman, with a story for every occasion."

Greg Campbell, of Campbell-Logan Bindery in Fridley, restores some books Coleman buys, and they are both members of the Ampersand Club made up of people interested in books.

"Pat should be better known. He's worth a lot of praise," Campbell says. "He's very interested n Minnesota history, which I am also, not only exploration and the Fort Snelling, statehood stuff but minerals, birds, trees. He's a great civil servant."

PACKNG UP

You'd think someone who's contributed so much to Minnesota would have an impressive office. Not Pat Coleman. His windowless work space in the Minnesota History Center at 345 W. Kellogg Blvd. is so small he can just squeeze in two chairs for visitors.

He doesn't even have an assistant. "I do the fun job of bringing material and someone else does the hard job of cataloging and saving stuff," he says cheerfully.

Coleman's nest is especially messy these days as he sorts through an accumulation of four decades on the job.

On his desk, facing a visitor, is the Minnesota Book Awards Kay Sexton award he won in 2009 for exceptional contributions to the local literary community. It's a lovely crystal trophy with a red flame at its center.

"Do you want it?" he asks quickly. "Sally won't let me bring in the house."

That would be his wife, Sally Johnson, owner of Groveland Gallery in Minneapolis, which specializes in work by Minnesota artists.

Shutting down a long career isn't easy, Coleman says. "I get to 10 things a day and 11 things come in. After 43 years, that's a lot. It's an occupational hazard."

He's going through saved catalogs from rare book dealers, auctions and auction houses he used for reference. One shelf holds gray librarians' file boxes filled with bookmarks he's gathered from all the bookstores he's visited.

"It's like collecting salt shakers," he says of the bookmarks. "It's fun, but what do you do with them?"

Important reference books he will leave for his successor are the 29-volume "A Dictionary of Books Relating to America," which is a bibliography of Americana, and the "1849-1865 Historical Record Survey," a compilation of everything printed in Minnesota.

Outside his office is a row of cabinets holding files that tell the story of the history of the book in this state, including writers, publishers, used bookstores, booksellers and manufacturers.

The conversation turns to social media, which Coleman admits hasn't been friendly to him.

"I had a blog that died a quiet death," he says with amusement. "One year I tweeted every day about new acquisitions, using all the characters allowed. There was very low interest. Book people and social media don't mingle."

He learned that a great collection is not a Field of Dreams: "They don't come. You have to be a promoter."

That's one reason his last major contribution to the Historical Society was curating the current exhibit "Sinclair Lewis:100 Years of Main Street," which he mounted to show that the Minnesota native's writing is as relevant today as a century ago. It includes a long Wall of Books showing the covers of dozens of American and foreign editions of Lewis' novels.

"This is something I've wanted to do for a long time," Coleman says of the exhibit. "There's a lot of me in there. The Wall of Books is a metaphor for my job; beautiful, physical books that also say a lot about history."

Although he's scored big finds, one of his biggest disappointments is that the Historical Society cannot afford a first edition with dust jacket of Lewis' "Main Street" or Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" with a jacket. He's often joked that he won't retire until he acquires them, but they are so rare the cost is prohibitive.

"The Lewis book goes for $165,000 and there is none in the state," he says with regret. "The 'Gatsby' goes for twice as much."

Still, he is proud of his rare acquisitions.

Two years ago he bought explorer, cartographer, soldier and diplomat Samuel de Champlain's "Voyages et descouuertures faites en la novvelle france depuis l'annee 1615," a rare first edition published in Paris in 1619. It describes in detail the geography of the eastern Great Lakes and includes an essay on the Huron people and their relationship with the French.

"That was a good one," Coleman says. "I'd been keeping an eye on it for a long time."

His other Greatest Hits include: a signed textbook owned by F. Scott Fitzgerald, an 1853 manuscript map of Fort Snelling, an early 20th-century manuscript map of the Bohemian Flats neighborhood in Minneapolis, and the first book printed in the Dakota Language (1839).

One of the oldest books in the collection is the 1595 Ortelius Atlas, a map of the world by Abraham Ortelius. In contrast, there's a 1952 cover of Clifford D. Simak's sci-fi novel "City," which Coleman says "is something that shows our low-brow collecting."

All of these books and the rest in the library belong to the people of Minnesota, emphasizes Brian Szott, Minnesota Historical Society curator of art who is Coleman's boss and has worked with him for 20 years.

"Pat lives and breathes his job," Szott says. "The library is comprehensive because of his work and that is truly a gift to our state."

GETTING HIS DREAM JOB

Coleman knew when he was a teenager he wanted to be the Minnesota Historical Society's acquisitions librarian, even though he came from a prominent St. Paul political family.

His father, Nick Coleman Sr., was a powerful Minnesota DFL state Senate majority leader. He was also a history buff, pulling out an old WPA map when the family was traveling, asking the kids to read about the area they were passing through.

Coleman's nine-years-younger brother, Chris, is the former mayor of St. Paul and heads Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity.

"Pat was the unique older brother," Chris recalls. "He was the one that had a cool motorcycle and backpacked around Ireland. He got me interested in camping and the outdoors."

When Chris was preparing for a summer job at Glacier National Park, Pat pulled together a 50-book reading list for his brother to peruse after working hours. "So I arrive with a crate of books. I think I read three of them," Chris admits.

As a student at the University of Minnesota, Pat Coleman worked for the university's Minnesota Interlibrary Teletype Exchange (MINITEX).

"Knowing my love of Minnesota history, they sent me to retrieve materials from the old Historical Society building, to the right of the Capitol where the Supreme Court building is now," he recalled. "The guy who was then head of library acquisitions was never around. I'd sneak into his office, lock the door, turn on the light and read his antiquarian bookseller and auction catalogs. It seemed to me to be like heaven. I thought that someday I was going to have that job."

Coleman got the job, but not everyone was happy about it. Six or eight Historical Society librarians wrote a letter of protest because he didn't have a library degree. But then-director Russell Fridley backed him.

"They soon found out you don't need a library degree," Coleman says. "You need a history degree and it didn't take them long for them to realize it."

As the newly-hired librarian Coleman noticed an oddity about the book collection; there were plenty of books about authors but not many books written by them. He went to work filling those gaps.

"There were books about Wanda Gag but no first editions of her work," Coleman recalls. "Other women who should be in the canon are Margaret Culkin Banning, Grace Flandrau and Norwegian immigrant Martha Ostenso." He made sure there were books by his favorite authors, including Sinclair Lewis, Ole Rolvaag and Ignatius Donnelly, as well as firebrands of labor history such as Floyd B. Olson.

WILDERNESS AND BOOKS

"I'll retire Aug. 6 and by Aug. 8 I'll be in the BWCA," says Coleman, who has numerous canoes and about 100 paddles. He's especially fond of a Kevlar canoe he inherited from his father.

"I've lost count of Pat's canoes," says his wife, Sally. "I know there are five at the house and I think he has others secreted away."

The couple live in Roseville, "a block over the line from St. Paul," Coleman says apologetically, as though someone is going to scold him for leaving the Capital City. Their family includes an English lab who has the Irish name Fergus, and "sweet old Phoebe," a golden retriever.

Coleman has two grown daughters, Dierdre and Natalie, with his first wife, Peggy Thomas, and three grandchildren.

He and Sally have been married six years, but they've known one another since their 20s. After Pat's divorce and the death of Sally's husband, well-known artist Greg Kelsey, a friend promoted their re-connection.

"We were two independent people who reluctantly gave up their little worlds and found we were better together," Johnson says.

Johnson, a birder and gardener, grew up in New Jersey and came here in 1973 to attend Macalester College. She shares her husband's love of hiking, canoeing and skiing and actually enjoys staying at their primitive summer cabin near Lutsen, part of a 10-family co-op.

What drew Sally to Pat Coleman? "His intelligence, humor, kindness and generosity in sharing information and knowledge," she replies. "He's enthusiastic about all things Minnesota and I was, too."

Sometimes those qualities mean she has to exercise patience. For instance, the day they landed in Rome.

"We were starved and looking forward to our first wonderful Italian meal," she recalls. "Pat says, 'Let's go down this street.' There were no restaurants, but he must have known something because we landed right in front of a used bookstore. In the window was a copy in Italian of Max Shulman's novel 'Rally Round the Flag, Boys!.' Pat was so excited he could hardly stand it. After he assured himself there were no more Minnesota books in the store we finally had our meal."

IN THE FUTURE

"I'll miss this job, but I'll be around and keep in touch with colleagues," Coleman says.

He'll have time in retirement to do some of the things he's most enjoyed, such as paying renewed attention to Friends of the University of Minnesota Libraries, for which he's served on the board of directors.

"We have been delighted to have Pat on our board," says Margaret Telfer, Friends past president. "He always had good ideas and we could use his name to recruit new members to the board who knew of his reputation."

He'll also have time to read the books in his large personal collection of Irish history and literature. Three of his books are important enough to be in the prestigious Grolier Club's current online exhibition. (To see his contributions go to: grolierclub.omeka.net.)

And Pat Coleman's legacy?

"I'm proud of leaving a big and significant collection." he says. "My hope is that scholars, history students, social activists and genealogists find what they are looking for and have a good research experience. I am honored to have been able to do this."

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT PATRICK COLEMAN

Writing a story about Pat Coleman is like trying to get your arms around an octopus. Almost everyone you interview has suggestions of two more people you should talk to about him.

That's because he's influenced almost every organization in the Twin Cities literary community, from Coffee House Press to Minnesota Book Awards to Minnesota Center for Book Arts (MCBA).

"Pat is such a force," says Peggy Korsmo-Kennon, former MCBA executive director. "One of the things I admire about Pat is his ability to connect people in a very unselfish way. I'm not sure anyone in the community has helped so many collaborations around books come together. He'd often say, 'You know who you should meet...' "

Some years ago the Minnesota Center for the Book, which facilitates the Minnesota Book Awards, was in danger of becoming homeless. Coleman stepped in twice to save the Center and its programs. It's now under the wing of Friends of the St. Paul Public Library.

"When I first met Pat, I thought he was probably one of the funniest, in a dry way, and smartest people I've ever met and that has not changed over the years," says Alyane Hopkins, Friends director of programs and services who's worked with Coleman on the Book Awards for 14 years. "I have this vision in my head of Pat in all kinds of different meetings, passionately fighting for an idea or writer or organization."

Sally Parry, retired professor of English and associate dean in Bloomington, Ill., is past president of the Sinclair Lewis Society. She and Coleman have been exchanging e-mails about Lewis and other things for years. Pat often consulted her when he was curating the Main Street exhibit.

"Pat is fun to work with when we bounce ideas off one another," Parry says. "It seems when people do something a long time they become jaded, but not Pat. He's as enthusiastic now as he was 20 years ago."

AN ENDOWMENT NAMED FOR HIM

To ensure that Pat Coleman's successor has the resources to maintain and grow the collection, the Patrick Coleman Chair has been established to raise $2 million, of which $1,366,000 is already pledged.

"I'm a little embarrassed they named this after me, but this endowment makes sure somebody who follows me is experienced, knows why books matter in the digital age, and gets paid more than I do," Coleman says.

The idea for the Chair, the first and only named in honor of an MNHS employee, was brought to the Historical Society by Pat's brother Chris.

"Pat has done so much for Minnesota Historical Society, this is a way of honoring him," Chris explains. "More importantly, it will keep that work going. It's too important for Minnesota. We couldn't let it retire with Pat."

The endowment will go on in perpetuity with only the interest being used.

Jennifer Payne Pogatchnik, MNHS Chief Development Officer, says creating a chair provides resources to get a "serious hire" to replace Coleman. "With state and private support, we will find the best and brightest Chair we can."

(For more information about the endowment, email jennifer.pogatchnik@mnhs.org.)

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