Gratia Countryman

Gratia Countryman
Born November 26, 1866
Hastings, Minnesota
Died July 26, 1953(1953-07-26) (aged 86)
Duluth, Minnesota
Occupation Librarian

Gratia Alta Countryman (pronounced gray-sha) (November 26, 1866 – July 26, 1953) was a nationally-known librarian who led the Minneapolis Public Library from 1904 to 1936. She was the daughter of immigrant farmers Alta and Levi Countryman.[1] She pioneered many ways to make the library more accessible and user-friendly to all of the city's residents, regardless of age or economic position.[2] Gratia Alta Countryman was called the "first lady of Minneapolis" and the "Jane Addams of the libraries."[3]

Due to her philosophy of outreach, collections and reading rooms were established in such places as Minneapolis fire halls, factories, hospitals, and an open-air reading area in Gateway Park.[4] Gratia Countryman was a capable leader who, over her 32 years as head librarian, helped increase the library’s scope and reach exponentially. She oversaw the building of 12 branches and a mobile library truck, she and her staff added over 500,000 volumes to the already substantial catalog, the programs she developed encouraged children to read, adolescents and young adults to continue their education, and helped adults find and hold jobs during times of war, recession and depression. Throughout her career Countryman not only belonged to various civil and social organizations but she was also the president and founder of some as well.

Gratia never married but in May 1917 she took in a homeless boy named Wellington Wilson, and later was awarded guardianship of him. This was a bold move for an unmarried woman of the times. Wellington Wilson was so happy that he later changed his name to Wellington Countryman. He eventually married and had a daughter whom he named Alta Countryman after his adoptive mother. The Countrymans lived in Chicago, Illinois, and Wellington died in 1997.

Gratia Countryman's eulogy summed up her life perfectly, "In her youth a library was a sacred precinct for guarding the treasures of thought, to be entered only by the scholar and the student... Her crusading zeal carried the book to every part of her city and county, to the little child, the factory worker, the farmer, the businessman, the hospital patient, the blind and the old."[5]


Countryman graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1889 and started work at the Minneapolis Public Library under James Kendall Hosmer.[6] She was the nation's first female head librarian at the Minneapolis Public Library from 1904 to 1936. When she accepted this job she knew that she would be making one third less than her predecessor, $2000.00 per year.[7]

In May 1917, Countryman took in a homeless boy, Wellington Wilson, who later changed his name to Wellington Countryman after she was awarded custody of the child.[8] She was very active in the Minnesota Library Association and served as MLA president in 1904 and 1905. [9] She established The Minnesota Library Commission and remained recording secretary of that group until 1918.[10] From 1912 to 1914, Countryman organized and was president of the Foreign Policy Association Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She also served on the National Liberty and War Service Committee and the Woman's Warfare League.[11]

In 1931, she was awarded the Civic Service Honor Medal by the Inter-Racial Service Council of Minneapolis for Outstanding Civic Service for work with immigrants.[11] In 1932, she was awarded an honorary MA degree from The University of Minnesota for Distinguished Public Service.[12] As well that this was the most significant award she received as it was "only the fourth honorary degree conferred by the university and the first received by a woman."[3]

In 1934, Countryman served as President of the American Library Association.[13][14] She was forced into retirement at age 70 in 1936.[3]


  1. Gratia A. Countryman: an inventory of the Gratia A. Countryman and family papers at the Minnesota Historical Society
  2. Benidt, Bruce Weir. The Library Book: Centennial History of the Minneapolis Public Library. Minneapolis: Minneapolis Public Library, 1984. (ISBN 0-9613716-0-9)
  3. 1 2 3 Stuhler, Barbara & Krueter, Gretchen. Women of Minnesota: selected biographical essays. Rev ed. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Press, 1998.
  4. Hennepin County Library. 19 Mar. 2009.
  5. Brandt, Steve. "FYI; A Vote for Countryman." Star Tribune (Minneapolis MN) (Nov 26, 2000): 01B. Custom Newspapers..Gale. SUNY Buffalo State College. 13 Feb. 2009. Gale Document Number: CJ67349028
  6. National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Volume E, 1937–1938
  7. Stuhler, Barbara, Kruter, Stephanie, Women Of Minnesota, Selected Biographical Essays, Minnesota Historical Society Page 178 ISBN 0-87351-367-3
  8. Meir, Peg. "Madame Librarian; The New Minneapolis Public Library could bear the name of Gratia Countryman, its former director. She was a strong professional leader and an unmarried woman who adopted a child – both unusual for women in the early 1920s. "Star Tribune (Minneapolis MN) (March 1, 2003): 01E. Custom Newspapers. Gale. Suny Buffalo State College . 13 Feb. 2009 Gale Document Number CJ98237168
  9. "Past Presidents. Minnesota Library Association". Retrieved 7 August 2015.
  10. People in History Volume 1: A–M An Index to U.S. and Canadian Biographies in History Journals and Dissertations ABC Clio Press ISBN 0-87436-494-9 page 124
  11. 1 2 American Women 1935–1940 A Composite Biographical Dictionary Volume A–L Gale Research Company 1981 page 194
  12. "Gratia Countryman." 1994. Minneapolis Historical Society. 19 Mar. 2009 <>.
  13. Kramer, Amanda. "Gratia Alta Countryman." Library History Timeline. 15 May 2008. 19 Mar. 2009 <>
  14. Library Journal; October 15, 1992, Vol. 117 Issue 17, pS1, 4p, 2 illustrations

Further reading

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