Before a public library was established in Stillwater, the city had a history of making reading materials available to its residents through a library association and a lending library. Neither of these organizations was a true public library, however, because citizens had to pay per use for the service.

The first public library was established by a referendum held on November 2, 1897, when Stillwater’s population was about 20,000. According to state statute, public library service would be tax-supported and available to residents free of charge.

An important issue which faced the new organization was whether the women who had worked so tirelessly for the referendum’s passage could be appointed to the library Board. Women in Minnesota could not hold elective office at that time. The question was decided in the affirmative, and all Board members were women until 1982.


In 1901, Andrew Carnegie sold his iron works to U.S. Steel and began to give away the proceeds. One of his areas of interest was the establishment of public libraries. Stillwater was offered $27,500 for the construction of a building if the City of Stillwater would provide the site and ensure funding for library services. (Carnegie’s gifts were always for the building only.) Carnegie’s requirements were met. Construction of the Beaux Arts building, designed by Patton and Miller, began in 1902.

Although the population of Stillwater dwindled from 1910 to the 1960’s, the library remained vibrant. During that period, children’s story hour and summer reading programs began. During the Depression, the library reading rooms were filled with the unemployed and circulation set new records.


During WWII, the library expanded its nonfiction collections to cover the Pacific, Asia, and Europe to provide information about the theaters of war. Once the soldiers returned, the library increased its emphasis on adult education.

In 1971, it became apparent that an additional space was needed due to the growth of the community as well as the library’s collections. The Margaret Rivers Fund provided the funding to more than double the size of the library. The expanded library reopened 1973. From the exterior, few viewers could distinguish where the original building ended and the additions—designed by Ackerman and Associates—began. The space allowed the expansion of the nonfiction collection and the addition of audiovisual materials.

In 1986-87, the library was completely renovated and reorganized in order to add handicapped accessibility, give patrons more space, and allow staff to handle increasing workloads more efficiently. At this time, reference service was enhanced and emphasized. The card catalog was replaced by a computer catalog in 1989. The library then automated all of its essential operations to provide better inventory control and new patron services.

A 21st Century Library

With a collection grown beyond the building’s capacity, not enough seating, and no place to put another computer, the library began to plan for the future in 2000. With the help of the community, the Board of Trustees determined the features that the library would need to serve the public in a growing community. The building project was funded by a public/private partnership that demonstrated the generosity of the community and its love for its library. Library services continued in a temporary location for fifteen months. The groundbreaking took place in September 2005 and the library reopened on September 18, 2006.

The library’s main entrance is now on Third Street, where a ramp offers parking out of the weather. A book return may be reached on foot or by car.


Above the parking level is the new Lower Level of the library. Designed to complement the historic building, this busy area holds circulation services, the Information Center, adult nonfiction, periodicals, the teen library, the children’s library with its reading loft and storytime room, the St. Croix Collection of local history, and audiovisual materials. Computers with Internet access for adults, teens, and children are on this level. Catalog computers and WiFi are available throughout the entire library.

The new Upper Level boasts beautiful community spaces. The Gallery hosts revolving shows by regional artists. Robert E. Slaughter’s roll top desk sits at the entrance to the Margaret Rivers Room, named for Mr. Slaughter’s mother and the Fund that he created. The Margaret Rivers Room and the library’s conference room are the sites of over 300 meetings and events each year. The gallery opens onto the Johnson Terrace with its splendid view of Stillwater and the river. It is an ideal place for everything from individual reading to beautiful events.


During the expansion, one of the most important considerations was the preservation and enhancement of the Carnegie structure. At the heart of the original building is the elegant rotunda with faux marble pillars, Greek-key mosaic, and egg and dart frieze. The oval skylight is illuminated from above. On this level, is found all types of adult fiction including rooms for general fiction, mysteries, romance and large print, and science fiction and westerns.

These rooms have been designed with all the warmth and comfort possible. Fireplaces, encourage patrons to sit and read, surrounded by the library’s collection of Jo Lutz Rollins (founder of the Stillwater Art Colony) paintings and an amazing fern that the library has raised from a small house plant.


The building project successfully married old and new. The original stained glass windows have been repositioned to the interior of the building. Close copies, made from glass from the original manufacturer, can now be found throughout the library. General fiction can still be found on the same wrought iron shelves installed in 1903, with the design of the end pieces repeated on informational signage. With the project, the library added RFID technology—the first to do so in the metro area—to improve patron self-service and help staff handle a burgeoning workload.

The library also displays a permanent fine art collection. Many of these pieces were a bequest from the late Richard Huelsmann, a former member of the Board of Trustees and Chair of the Centennial Capital Campaign Committee.