The man who collects Minnesota’s history

Minnesota Historical Society maps and books curator Patrick Coleman points out detail on a map on Jan. 6, 2014 at the society’s headquarters in St. Paul. Dan Olson/MPR News

Four hundred years ago, map makers were a creative lot, adding islands and charting rivers where none existed. The story about those early maps of the Upper Midwest is part of my new Minnesota Sounds and Voices report today on All Things Considered.

Minnesota Historical Society maps and books curator Patrick Coleman is like a kid in a candy store as he pointed examples of cartographic creativity during a recent tour of the society’s vault and collection. One mapmaker, for example, didn’t know where the Mississippi River actually started, so he just drew it way up into Canada. Why not? Who was going to check?

Coleman has been the society’s printed materials curator for 35 years — in fact it was his first job after finishing his degree at the University of Minnesota. He’s not shy about relating a “D’oh!” moment.

He was brand new to his job when he called a law book publisher to find out where he could buy old, collectible books. He says the woman who answered the phone had a suggestion for the new archivist. Why not try calling used and rare book stores?

Dakota language reader from 1840 in the Minnesota Historical Society collection. Dan Olson/MPR News

Among the collection’s most moving and thought provoking documents are Dakota language books created by missionaries for what had been an oral language. The books are from 1840, a few decades before the Dakota and other indigenous people were discouraged, sometimes forcibly, from learning and speaking their native language.

The society has millions of documents and objects in its collection – everything from first editions of Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street” and “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald to bandolier bags and even a North Shore tourist cabin – roof, floor and walls.

Somewhat unusual among the states, the organization is also the archivist for every document created by our state government.

Minnesota Historical Society curator Patrick Coleman in his St. Paul office. Dan Olson/MPR News

Coleman says the society probably isn’t interested in acquiring your family bible, but, yes, you should photocopy the page with notes about the family tree and offer that to the collection. He wants that document since it can save a lot of time for some of the society’s most intensive users, the genealogy bugs burrowing into family history.

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