While today the Mercantile Library engages the public in science and philosophy, its founders’ original intention in creating it was a desire to learn and not having access to the resources to do so. In 1835, self-made merchants pieced together the library at a time when higher education and books were luxuries only the wealthy could generally afford. Books were expensive, public libraries were uncommon until the late 1870s, and getting news from other parts of the country took a concentrated effort. Despite two fires and multiple challenges throughout the years, the Library has remained a quiet, beautiful place while reaching an increasingly wider audience. The Mercantile Library’s Director John Faherty and UC historian Dr. David Stradling explained how the Mercantile Library came to be for this weeks #FlashbackFriday, and how it is being reimagined with that story in mind.
The Library’s Foundation
The merchants who founded the Mercantile Library were a “new” social class of self-made businessmen. Many people at the time were literate, but books were an expensive luxury. The group made the decision that they “would be smarter together.” They created an intellectual wing of the business community for self-betterment as well as amassing practical knowledge related to their work. Being in Cincinnati, they served as an intellectual center for merchants, bringing together information from all over the country. The Library also played a key role in a city where much of the economy was driven by merchants. They pooled their resources into a library that, at the time, was solely for them and their guests. For the first 60 years, it was housed in Cincinnati College, a law school that would ultimately be absorbed by the University of Cincinnati. Later, the building was shared with the Chamber of Commerce, which also served local merchants.
While 4 th street has remained largely out of reach of floods in the city, the Mercantile Library’s building burned twice in the first ten years of its existence. The catastrophic fires led to an opportunity. Most of the books were saved by neighboring members, although firefighting resources then were not adequate to save most of the building. After the second fire, the members raised $10,000 for a 10,000-year renewable lease that put the responsibility of the building’s care on the owners and would prove unbreakable through the years. This lease has given them the freedom – and left resources available – to address a wide variety of difficult issues and take risks.
A Changing Audience
One crucial change in the Library’s history has been its audience. In response to budget needs, early members were encouraged to invite their neighbors to join the library, and with an increasing German immigrant population, efforts were made to include more German newspapers. Other changes were slower. Although the first female members could join in 1859, welcomed with a time set aside for them alone to use the space, and several female librarians were hired early on, a woman would not be elected board president until the 1980s. Additionally, the first Black member, Peter H. Clark, was not allowed to join until 1872. He was a school principal who was an advocate for desegregation of the schools. Even after he joined, it was made clear that this was “not to be a precedent,” and the Mercantile Library would not have a Black president until the 2000s. Neither women nor persons of color could vote initially.
As public libraries became more widely available and membership fell off in response to war, economic hardship, struggles with adequate visitor parking, and the organization’s seemingly increasing “obsolescence” in a world that was becoming less interested in lectures and reading, Jean Springer became an important advocate for the Mercantile Library in the 1960s. She put her public relations skills from serving as a Woman Air Force Service Pilot (WASP) to use. She invited dynamic speakers, hosted lunchtime lectures in partnership with the University of Cincinnati, concerts, and an “Air Conditioning Party” to celebrate the installation of air conditioning in the building, and spearheaded fundraising events and travel, all while bringing the Library into a modern world.
Even recently, the Mercantile Library had been called the “best kept secret in Cincinnati,” to which, John Faherty retorted, “Secret from whom?” In the past ten years, the Library has increasingly worked to serve a more diverse audience. They have sought out wider varieties of international speakers, including authors like Zadie Smith. When they invited Chuck D to speak, they had to move to another venue because over 700 people wanted to attend. The Library is striving to have a more diverse board and staff and is starting to reach a younger audience. They also are currently working to build relationships with equity and diversity focused groups to help the Library expand who they can reach. On February 25, they hosted Black Future City, an urban consulate that operates from the Mercantile Library. The Library is also excited about a currently in-progress project by their resident artist.
Faherty thinks that the founders of the library, though not reflective of the modern audience, would have been proud of recent efforts. Even though the Mercantile Library became relatively exclusive soon after its founding, it was created on the basis of “democratizing knowledge.” Despite its changes, the Library always has and continues to celebrate books and thought. The Mercantile Library takes great pride in its long tradition of hosting renowned visiting speakers, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Herman Melville. Most of their lectures are free to the public, with the exception of one fundraising event every year. It remains a “creature of the 19 th century” while continuing to evolve, remaining relevant and striving to stimulate discussion.