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History of Archbishop Ireland Memorial Library

Based on edited excerpts from Sr. Mary Christine Athans'  history "To Work for the Whole People": John Ireland's Seminary in St. Paul (New York: Paulist Press, 2003).

For information about university history, visit the Special Collections and Archives site.

Beginnings until Affiliation

To enable professors and students to achieve their academic goals, Archbishop John Ireland knew that a solid library was a necessity.

The first catalog of the seminary, in 1896, stated: "The library contains at present four thousand volumes. These include all the classical authorities on philosophy and theology. The library receives regularly sixty magazines, theological, philosophical and scientific, in the English, French, German and Italian languages."  Across the way, the college library itself was left with a paltry 500 volumes!

Although the books were housed in various rooms in the Seminary administration building until the current Archbishop Ireland Memorial Library was completed in 1950, the quality of the collection was substantial.

Book purchases were, for the first decades, a priority, and the princely sum of $2,000 was budgeted annually for that purpose. For many years, the rector or vice-rector regularly presented the board of trustees a list of books for purchase and the money was allocated accordingly.


In addition, The Saint Paul Seminary was heir to the private collections of both clergy and laity. One of the historical treasures is a 1647 Bible inscribed successively by Bishops Loras, Cretin, and Grace, who presented it to the library before his death in 1897. This small volume, with its provenance, provides a tangible link to the history of the Church in the Upper Midwest.

Another extraordinary contributor was William James Onahan, a Chicago businessman and political leader. He became a close friend of Ireland's in the Catholic colonization movement. Both James J. and Mary Hill are listed as contributors to the library. James J. Hill donated books, pamphlets, Civil War records, and proceedings from the Republican Party convention. Mary Hill regularly contributed copies of the North American Review and the Popular Science Monthly.

The library was originally housed in the first floor of the administration building, constructed in 1893. The room was arranged in alcoves with wooden shelves accommodating about 12,000 books. With continuing growth, the seldom used periodicals and books were relegated to rooms on the fourth floor. The Catholic Historical Society of St. Paul's museum and book collection were also on the fourth floor.

As early as 1903, the seminary library published a 122-page catalog listing all its books. The pamphlet was available for .25 from the secretary of the seminary.

In 1904, when Abbot Gasquet was on campus preaching a retreat, he had opportunity to inspect the library and was duly impressed, attributing the library's excellence to the special care of Archbishop Ireland ... Gasquet remarked:
"It was a source of wonder to me to find already on the shelves almost every book of any value for the purpose he had in view. I tested the collection in various ways, by looking for works I hardly supposed could be found there [and] in most instances they were in their places."

Because of the enormous overcrowding; there was little or no space for the students to use books in the library. By 1948 the collection numbered over 30,000 volumes; unprocessed items brought the number closer to 40,000.  

With the accession of Father Rudolph Bandas to the rectorship in 1945, plans were advanced for a new structure. Father Bandas, along with Father Ambrose Hayden, librarian, and Father Thomas J. Shanahan, served as the planning committee. Father Hayden was assigned as librarian shortly after ordination and during the summers studied for his B.S. degree in library science at the University of Michigan. In the 1948-1949 academic year, Father Shanahan, one of the first two priests to receive a library science M.A. from Michigan, was appointed librarian and professor of homiletics.

The building was basically completed and the books were moved into the newly named Archbishop Ireland Memorial Library under the direction of Father Shanahan in January, 1950.  With a new building to accompany a new Masters program, The Saint Paul Seminary entered the second half of the twentieth century.  

Students from the 1950's recall the newness of the library, and the accessibility of the books. Father Eugene Abbott recalls helping Msgr. Shanahan in the library by painting the Dewey decimal numbers on the spines of books recently purchased or donated.

Affiliation and Beyond

For nearly three years in the early 1980's, seeking to stabilize financing and assure its future, the Seminary entered into long-term negotiations to become closely affiliated with the then College of St Thomas. This included discussions about the needs and standing of Ireland Library, where budgeting and staffing concerns had been noted in accreditation.

The fruitful affiliation of the College and the Seminary was especially beneficial to Ireland Library, which while retaining a seminary budget for materials, could call on and be improved by the resources of the growing College and its library.  By the 1990's under the astute leadership of the first lay (and woman) director, Ms.Mary Martin, Ireland Library made great strides in modernization and technology.  Among the many innovation of this time, the Library began a restricted book fund called Gift For Many Minds.  In addition, the Library instituted (and continues) a twice-yearly series of lectures by Seminary faculty (list of past lectures).

Archbishop Ireland Memorial Library, while remaining at the heart of priestly and lay ministry formation, has become far more than the Seminary library proper.  It is in effect the theology library for the now University of St Thomas, serving large, diverse groups of patrons, at the ministerial, undergraduate, and graduate levels.  Beyond the campuses, the Library serves the larger community of the archdiocese itself, as would certainly have been lauded by the Archbishop himself, as a lover of books and learning.