The Libraries' Library
Conceived as a way to bring the University of Minnesota Libraries to every citizen of the state, Minitex celebrates forty years of excelling at that mission and much, much more.
Minitex has always kept a low profile, yet few state and University enterprises have had as much praise heaped upon them by patrons over the years. Born forty years ago as a means to share the library resources of the University of Minnesota with libraries throughout the state, Minitex was housed initially in borrowed space in Wilson Library. It has since moved to the ground level of Elmer L. Andersen Library on the west bank of the Twin Cities campus, where it continues to thrive unobtrusively while the rest of the University of Minnesota hums around it.
Minitex's quiet effectiveness was noted almost from the start. In 1971, John Robson, Director of Instructional Resources at Southwest Minnesota State College in Marshall, called the newly invented state and University of Minnesota library resource system "a revolutionary and innovative concept. Its success is due mainly to the willingness of the University to make its materials available, and to provide necessary support services. I can think of no better way that the University can serve the entire state than by making the wealth of its resources available to all its citizens. MINITEX is a giant step in that direction."
Speaking in the same year, Jan Schroeder, assistant director of the Duluth Public Library, said, "The informational impact of Minitex has been tremendous for a region that is remote from large resource institutions [like the U of M, Twin Cities]."
"When students are asked how they feel about Minitex, they say 'Wow!'" added Rudy Johnson, assistant professor and librarian at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.
The "revolutionary and innovative concept"—the "wow factor" that Robson, Schroeder, and Johnson were raving about forty years ago—was a pilot project, initially funded in 1969 through a grant from the Louis and Maude Hill Foundation and state and federal grant funds from the Minnesota State Department of Education. Over the next two years, a system was developed that allowed quick delivery of library materials from the University's numerous libraries on the Minneapolis and St. Paul campuses to the University of Minnesota, Duluth; the University of Minnesota, Morris; and nine other public and private colleges and universities and public libraries around the state.
Each cooperating library was hooked into the Minitex offices at Wilson Library by means of a teletype machine. In fact, the acronym for the enterprise—MINITEX, the service's name, now rendered with only an initial capital letter—is a reminder of the institution's history: it initially stood for Minnesota Interlibrary Teletype Experiment.
Requests for materials could be sent day or night via the teletype machine. The search would arrive at the Minitex office in Minneapolis and be printed in duplicate by the machine. Minitex workers—primarily University of Minnesota, Twin Cities students—would search the University's card catalog for the materials requested, and then, these same workers would hustle to the various libraries around the campus to collect the volumes and articles needed, which were then shipped to outstate libraries. All in a day's time.
This was a new service, not just to Minnesota, but to the nation as a whole. While more efficient and comprehensive interlibrary service had been a much-discussed, and much-longed-for, innovation in the world of libraries prior to Minitex, this project was the first of its kind in the country. The pilot was a test to see if rapid service was feasible; if the costs of such a program were manageable; and whether the shared resource service would strain the heart and core of the program—the University's own library service. On each count, Minitex passed with flying colors.
Minitex is well known by librarians but nearly invisible to the thousands of patrons whose libraries rely on Minitex services.
Today the "wow factor" at Minitex is outlined by an alphabet soup of services provided by and through Minitex and its library partners around the state and region.
The Electronic Library of Minnesota (ELM) is an extensive collection of online publications made available to all Minnesota residents through their libraries or an ELM portal (elm4you.org).
The Minnesota Library Information Network (MnLINK) Gateway is a search engine that allows home access to the catalogs of local libraries and other resources like ELM, electronic books, and online journals (mnlinkgateway.org).
The Minnesota Library Access Center (MLAC), a gigantic library storage facility for lesser-used volumes owned by Minnesota libraries, is housed within the limestone cliffs on the banks of the Mississippi River, deep in the recesses beneath Elmer L. Andersen Library (minitex.umn.edu/storage).
AskMN is an online chat reference service that puts information seekers in touch with a live librarian, day or night, 24/7 (askmn.org).
Minitex is the administrative home for the Minnesota Digital Library (MDL), which helps to provide the technical foundation for the digitization of materials from libraries and the state's other cultural heritage organizations. Its signature collection, Minnesota Reflections, contains more than 100,000 images, maps, and documents (mndigital.org).
And, of course, Minitex's document delivery service—now called Resource Sharing—continues as it has from the very beginning, delivering materials to libraries from Rapid City to Rochester with remarkable promptness and efficiency (minitex.umn.edu/sharing).
For all this, Minitex is well known by librarians but nearly invisible to the thousands of patrons whose libraries rely on Minitex services. To help raise that visibility, Minitex created MnKnows — Dig Deeper @ Your Library (mnknows.org), a public-facing portal to give Minnesotans one-stop access to these online library services. In addition to connecting users directly to Minitex services, the site solicits stories from those users, "not only to make improvements, but also to share with legislators and other library administrators about the usefulness of this site."
The comments have been overwhelmingly positive, with ELM alone generating a sixty-page collection of over 200 stories, including one from a high school librarian who said ELM "is like an Emergency Room of knowledge. Without ELM resources, we would struggle mightily to provide accurate, timely and reliable resources for our students." One middle school student even reported that ELM "saved my school career and kept me from detention about 9000 times."
Other Minitex services have generated equally enthusiastic responses, like this one sent from a user—she signed herself "Grateful" in Northwest Minnesota—who was searching for a book for a study group:
I am AMAZED! . . . Late Tuesday evening, I search [my regional library] for author Edward Carpenter's 1912 book, 'Towards Democracy'. No book. No luck on Google either. I search MnLINK immediately. Results: All University of Minnesota campuses have this book, as does Hennepin County. . . .This morning as I checked my email at 8:15 am, my Bemidji Public Library notified me the book: 'Towards Democracy' was in Bemidji. I picked the book up as the library opened one hour later. THIS is SERVICE. This is beyond amazement that anything can happen this quickly in any business. AND I didn't have to pay overnight shipping or extra for less than 3 day service. Truly I am grateful for knowing I can get any book in Minnesota, right here in Bemidji, and sometimes in less than 3 days.
The Early Years: Tight Quarters and Beer Boxes
Funded by the state legislature in 1971, Minitex was created under the auspices of the Minnesota Higher Education Coordinating Board, which contracted with the University of Minnesota library system to provide space for Minitex as well as access to its collections. Minitex's original mission was "to facilitate resource sharing among academic and other libraries in Minnesota in order to strengthen the library services provided to students, faculty, and researchers in Minnesota and to contribute to cost effectiveness of library services to individual libraries."
It's hard to say if the early Minitex users who sent those encomiums from Marshall and Duluth would have been as impressed with the system had they taken a peek at its offices. Crammed into a basement space at Wilson Library, Minitex was stuck at the far end of "the restroom hall," to borrow the words of Mary Rae Oxborrow, who, along with first director Alice Wilcox, constituted the original professional staff at Minitex. To soften the concrete walls and floors, Wilcox brought in some indoor/outdoor sample carpeting. A Peter Max-style illustration of a winged messenger was painted by one of the workers to liven up the entrance, and a pair of Indian blankets was hung by Wilcox to give color to the interior.
For more than a decade, Minitex remained a tightly packed office primarily composed of Wilcox, Oxborrow, a limited number of other full-time staff, and a growing number of student workers trying to navigate through desks, boxes of books, the teletype machine, and stacks of library requests from the ever-expanding number of patrons.
Nancy Walton, the current Minnesota State Librarian, was working then in the Ames Library, housed near Minitex. "I can still remember hearing the clacking of the teletype machines through the walls," she says.
Kathy Drozd, who started out as a student worker in the early 1970s and is now Assistant Director for Delivery Services and MLAC, says, "'Excuse me,' was the most commonly heard phrase in the office."
In the early years, the delivery service used sturdy beer boxes, painted and color-coded, to hold books and documents that were shipped out to the various libraries. "These were coded according to the cities that they were being sent to," says Drozd. "I think Northfield was green, for instance. So we'd pack up the green beer boxes headed for Northfield and drive them to the Greyhound bus depot in Minneapolis, where we'd buy tickets for the boxes to be delivered. We'd also pick up any returning boxes at the station coming up from Northfield."
"Everybody did everything," says Oxborrow, who recently retired from her position as reference librarian in the Plum Creek [Minnesota] Library System, "whether it was checking the card catalog or going to the libraries to pull documents and books, or heading to the bus depot."
Minitex grew quickly. Between 1969 and 1971, the number of requests at Minitex more than tripled, from around 20,000 to over 70,000. From 1971 to 1976, requests doubled to over 140,000. "Here we were, starting to get a national reputation," recalls Drozd, "but it you stepped into our offices, you just saw boxes on shelves getting set for delivery."
By the mid-1970s, the original staff had doubled. New services—like a very popular reference referral system—were instituted, and the number of libraries in the system expanded dramatically. For the first time, libraries from South Dakota and North Dakota were included in the service. Because the number of requests for journal articles at Minitex grew exponentially, a project to create a unified list of journals owned by Minnesota libraries was started. Nicknamed MULS (initially Minnesota Union List of Serials, and later, Minitex Union List of Serials), the painstaking efforts to discover and collate the holdings of libraries around the state and region required the hand-coding work of about 30 students of all backgrounds and stripes—"They came from everywhere: Cyprus, Greece, and Thailand to Brainerd," according to Cecelia Boone, who joined the Minitex staff in 1978, and soon began to supervise the student workers.
Alice Wilcox, the original director of Minitex, was a "visionary leader," according to Drozd, and "a very special person," in Boone's estimation. "She was delightful company," says Oxborrow. But, all agree she could be demanding and impatient. Wilcox expected a lot from her staff, and the staff delivered. Dave Paulson, Minitex Resource Sharing manager, recalls being asked at a management seminar in the early 1980s how many requests Minitex could handle in a given day? He was stumped, trying to come up with a number. "All I could think to say was, 'We do whatever comes in.'"
Veterans of the early years at Minitex are unanimous in applauding the collegial staff. Boone remembers students singing the alphabet song as they labored over MULS coding; Paulson remembers organizing a Minitex softball team and a particular game in which Minitex challenged the staff of the University's Bio-Medical Library to a game at Riverside Park. "Alice offered us a case of beer for every run we beat them by," he recalls. "We won by 17. She wound up giving us $85, so we bought a couple of kegs."
The pitcher for that team was Mary Rae Oxborrow, whose memories of those early years include the pleasures and difficulties of traveling around the region to help teach librarians new to the Minitex system its ins-and-outs. On one late fall excursion to Rapid City, South Dakota, she found herself with a day off in the Black Hills and decided to visit the Crazy Horse monument being constructed in the south end of the mountains. On her way back to Rapid City, she decided to cut through the Hills by means of the narrow, winding Needles Highway—a mistake. About six miles from Custer State Park, she got stuck in a snow-packed mountain pass as the sun was setting over South Dakota. "I was raised in the Midwest and knew that I was supposed to stay with my car when it got stuck in snow," says Oxborrow, "but I just didn't think it was advisable there."
She got out of her car and trudged for an hour or two before finally finding a cabin. She knocked on the door, but found no one home. The sun had long-since disappeared, and she knew she had to stay there for the night. Using some of that beer-box ingenuity accrued at Minitex, she scrounged around until she found some plastic garbage bags on the property, clothed herself in these, and cuddled up on the porch for a long, cold night. The next day, still wearing the garbage sacks, she slogged back toward the highway where she was rescued by a Custer Park employee, who was no doubt impressed by the perseverance of this Minitex ambassador.
A Modern Minitex: From Teletype to the World Wide Web
There were seventeen inches of snow on the ground at the airport when Bill DeJohn got off the plane in Minneapolis to interview for the position as the second director of Minitex in 1984. He came with a long and distinguished background in complex and multi-state library systems. After growing up in St. Louis and getting an undergraduate degree in Russian Civilization at the University of Missouri and a graduate degree in library science at the University of Pittsburgh, DeJohn worked in a succession of libraries, including the state libraries of Missouri and Illinois. He arrived at Minitex from the University of Washington in Seattle, where he'd headed a resource system that included the Pacific Northwest states, two Canadian provinces, and Alaska. "I felt like I knew the landscape of this kind of system," says DeJohn.
Minitex had a good story. It was built around cooperation and was a national leader in what it did. It was a model of efficient use of resources, too. --former Minnesota state senator Steve Kelley
The framework of Minitex was in good shape when he came to Minnesota. In fact, DeJohn was surprised to discover the depth of collaboration between Minitex and the libraries around the state. Soon after his arrival, he learned that while the Minitex central offices may be housed at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, Minitex itself lives and breathes throughout its network. DeJohn says, "While I was traveling to libraries to touch base and introduce myself, I noticed in several of the academic libraries a sign hanging from the ceiling that said 'Minitex.' I thought that was novel! That libraries all through the system were calling their interlibrary loan offices 'Minitex' just seemed neat!"
For all its good works, however, DeJohn knew that if Minitex were to continue to thrive it would need to head in new directions. "The question was, how do we make this place better?" says DeJohn.
The technological revolution helped steer DeJohn and Minitex toward an answer to that question. So did the inclinations of state funding sources. "Ann Kelley from the [Minnesota] Office of Higher Education let us know early on that if we wanted money from the state legislature, we should go after technology funds," says DeJohn.
Many members of the Minnesota Legislature, like state senator LeRoy Stumpf, former state senator Steve Kelley, and long-time member of the Minnesota State House of Representatives, the late Irvin Anderson, were instrumental in advocating for Minitex. "There was an idea of a virtual library floating around in the early to mid-90s and people in the legislature saw it as an exciting notion," says senator Kelley, "Minitex was seen as a great vehicle because it had this history of being in the business of sharing resources, which was also central to the idea of creating a virtual library. Minitex had a good story. It was built around cooperation and was a national leader in what it did. It was a model of efficient use of resources, too."
With the help of libraries throughout the region and in response to the libraries' needs, Minitex services again expanded. A $12 million state grant funded the development of MnLINK and the MnLINK Gateway system between 1997 and 2004. Funding for ELM and the Minnesota Digital Library became available in the late 1990s into the 2000s. The teletype machines were replaced by computers as email and the Web emerged.
Most recently, Minitex was a partner in the creation of a lasting library storage facility, which culminated in the April 8, 2000, dedication of the Elmer L. Andersen Library. Built into the banks along the Mississippi River, the Minitex offices are now located only partially underground, with a reading room for users of MLAC materials, windows overlooking the Mississippi, and enough space to make all the "Excuse me's" a recollection of yesteryear.
The beer box-themed distribution center is ancient history as well. Now, a lengthy conveyor belt winds its way from the ground floor offices, down 85 feet to a spacious loading dock in the bowels of Andersen. There, little trains of plastic-covered bins, full of books and documents, are picked up by privately contracted delivery services (not Greyhound buses) and driven off to libraries in the three-state region.
Next to the loading docks are two gigantic, climate-controlled caverns—each two stories high and the length of two football fields—that house row after row of shelved documents. In one cavern are the University Libraries' archives and special collections; the other holds the Minnesota Library Access Center (MLAC), which is managed by Minitex.
MLAC was first proposed by the Minnesota Library Planning Task Force to house lesser-used, but important, print materials from the University and other libraries across the state. Minitex was designated to operate MLAC as part of the University of Minnesota Libraries.
While the number of services provided through the Minitex system continues to expand, those that have existed from the beginning continue to grow and meet new challenges. The document delivery service, the organization's original function that's now called Resource Sharing, processed 431,000 requests for books, journal articles, and other materials in 2010. The Minitex Delivery Service staff handled a staggering 1.07 million items that same year.
A Minitex service called MEDD (Minitex Electronic Document Delivery) is an increasingly busy and important part of the Resource Sharing department. Through MEDD, about 85 percent of all copy requests were scanned and delivered electronically to individual patrons or requesting libraries.
As Minitex moves into its next forty years of operations, it does so without the man who served as director for the last 27 years. Having interviewed for the position in the wake of a snowstorm, it is fitting that Bill DeJohn's last days as director were in the midst of winter 2012. He retired effective January 11, following a retirement celebration attended by more than 250 of his colleagues and friends from across the state and the Dakotas.
The backbone of Minitex remains the University of Minnesota Libraries, and its director, Wendy Pradt Lougee, has high praise for Bill DeJohn and his tenure at Minitex. "He's always been concerned about and understood what people really need from this service."
Lougee expects the "symbiotic" relationship between the University Libraries and Minitex will continue for many years to come. "Minitex has a home here and serves a great function for University. This is a wonderful outward-facing part of what we do."
Tim Brady is a St. Paul-based freelance writer and frequent visitor to the University Archives, where he conducts research for his regular contributions to the University of Minnesota Alumni Association's Minnesota Magazine.