Pat Coleman looks back on 43 years with the Minnesota Historical Society

Patrick Coleman
Patrick Coleman, acquisitions librarian for the Minnesota Historical Society, is photographed with some of the Society's collection in St. Paul, Minn. on June 23, 2015.
Scott Takushi | The St. Paul Pioneer Press via AP

If you take even the swiftest glance at the Minnesota Historical Society’s archives, you’re sure to find some real gems of Minnesota history: Bob Dylan’s high school poetry. The first book printed in the Dakota language. Some 50,000 maps. 

These and many other highlights from the MNHS’ 500,000-item collection are thanks to acquisitions librarian and self-described “book geek” Pat Coleman, who retired on Aug. 6 after 43 years on the job.

In a conversation Friday with host Cathy Wurzer, Coleman said that his work has long been a joy. “I think it comes from an innate love of Minnesota,” he said. “And a love of finding rare material and collecting it for posterity.”

Coleman said about half of the items he added to the collection over the years came to MNHS as donations, but he’s always enjoyed searching for diamonds in the rough by attending book fairs, auctions, and private collections. He’s even found items by visiting with avid readers who had “accidentally” collected rare or important work.

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One of Coleman’s rarest finds is the original Treaty of Washington, 1858, also known as the Yankton Treaty, whereby the Yankton Sioux ceded 11 million acres of what is now South Dakota to the U.S. government. It’s an important and poignant piece of Minnesota history, Coleman said — and extremely rare. “It just shouldn’t have been out there in the world to acquire.”

Regrets? He has one or two. “I used to tell my younger colleagues I wasn’t going to retire until I acquired a first edition of ‘The Great Gatsby’ in a dust jacket.” He never found one, but he came close: Last year he spotted a first edition of the novel Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (a Fitzgerald contemporary and fellow Minnesotan). The price? $165,000. 

“That wasn’t going to happen,” Coleman laughed. But in another world, it would have been a prized addition to his final curated exhibit at MNHS this summer: “Sinclair Lewis: 100 Years of Main Street.”

Coleman said he’s always been a fan of Lewis, who was born in Sauk Center in 1885 and wrote stories set in fictionalized Minnesota towns. “He’s writing about the people that we know,” Coleman said. “And he’s calling out — as a satirist does — our foibles, and pushing us to be better than we are. I love his humor, and I love that he tackles the tough subjects of his day, which have remained the tough subjects of our day.”

That historical relevance has resonated throughout all of Coleman’s work with MNHS. “It’s important to understand who we are, and where we come from, and what we’ve gone through as a society,” he said. “If we don’t do that, I think it’s going to be really hard to make improvements on our lives.”