Raising the Conversation: The Mercantile Library

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.

The Mercantile Library, 1890. Credit: https://mercantilelibrary.com/history/

Geology Students Spearheading Outreach Program

In response to recent conversations about increasing diversity in the sciences, graduate students in the University of Cincinnati Department of Geology have begun spearheading efforts to learn about and discuss diversity as well as work to make science more readily available to a wider audience, especially underserved communities. As a part of these efforts, graduate students and faculty have been working to increase the department’s engagement with the local community to bring scientific research directly to students through partnerships with local schools.  

Each graduate student and faculty member has designed activities and presentations about their work that are meant to engage K-12 students. Descriptions and contact information related to these activities and presentations were put together into an Earth Science Outreach Program website. For each opportunity, a graduate student or faculty member has committed to visiting classrooms to lead the activity, bringing interesting materials and their own unique experiences. Presentations are free and can be adapted to suit the needs of specific curricula, teachers, and classes. 

The group is excited to start working with teachers and is ready to adapt to virtual or in person settings as current COVID-19 conditions change. 

Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Arnie Miller

Arnold Miller
Dr. Arnie Miller

This week, we highlight the work of Dr. Arnie Miller. Dr. Miller is an Advisory Board member of the UC Center for Public Engagement with Science, as well as Professor Emeritus, former Head of the UC Geology Department, and former Senior Associate Dean of the UC College of Arts and Sciences.  

Dr. Miller is an evolutionary paleontologist and paleoecologist. His research has focused on mass extinctions and their impacts on global biodiversity, environmental gradients, and anthropogenic effects on modern coastal communities. Dr. Miller differs from a lot of paleontologists in that his passion did not stem from a childhood interest in dinosaurs or other fossils. He grew up in New York City, and with the exception of the American Museum of Natural History, there are not a lot of fossils to be found there. Dr. Miller found became interested in geology while living among geology majors in college. He took a course in geology to learn more about what his peers were talking about, ultimately leading to him pursuing majors in geology and biology. During his studies, he was inspired by a professor who introduced him to using fossils as data to study biodiversity and mass extinctions, which is when he first became passionate about paleontology.  

In 2007, Dr. Miller was elected as a Fellow of the Paleontological Society for, among other work, being instrumental in the Paleobiology Database (PBDB). This website is a compilation of  fossil data, where they were found, the publication that described them, and where they can be found now. It is used by paleontologists with an interest in “big data”- the use of multiple collections to piece together an understanding of broad trends in space and time. However, this database is open source, and is also used by instructors to give their students experience processing data.  

Since then, Dr. Miller has served as the President of the Paleontological Society; he is currently finishing his term as Past President. In this position, he has strived to champion diversity, equity, and inclusion. He has encouraged the scientific community to acknowledge our previous shortcomings in these areas. He is co-chair of the Society’s ethics committee, dedicated to ensuring that Society is inviting, safe, and inclusive for all participants in its activities. He and his colleagues are working to improve opportunities for people with diverse backgrounds to enter all fields of science. The Society has been developing financial opportunities for underrepresented minorities, and Society representatives now regularly attend  meetings focused on minority inclusion in science, such as the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). They also work to increase education and outreach that specifically targets underrepresented audiences.   

Dr. Miller also addressed outreach and community involvement in science in his role as Head of the Geology Department and as A&S Senior Associate Dean. When the Cincinnati Museum Center (CMC) closed for renovations a few years ago, he was a part of a group that worked to bring some of the exhibits to the University of Cincinnati campus. Along with this, they scheduled programs such as a panel on global climate change that drew in community members in Cincinnati. CMC exhibits were also set up at the airport, and the teams behind this and the University exhibits held a townhall at a conference for museum professionals about their experiences setting these up. These exhibits being in different environments effectively brought the museum to people who might not normally visit, resulting in more engagement than may normally be possible.  

Dr. Miller also has had the opportunity to engage in debates about evolution and creation. He thinks that engaging people of all backgrounds and belief systems is important without being perceived as condescending. As part of the 2009 North American Paleontology Convention hosted at UC, Miller, who was chair of the organizing committee, took 75 paleontologists to visit the Creation Museum to give them a firsthand look at what and how ideas were being communicated there. Members of the group found the visit to be eye-opening, with respect to how professionally ideas were presented from a strictly technical standpoint, even though those ideas diverged from accepted science. Responding to dissent is important, but scientists do not always communicate well, and doing so well with humility and respect is crucial. Every year while teaching an introductory-level course on the history and evolution of life , he spent a week on the creationism-versus-evolution question, including inviting a representative from the Creation Museum to speak to the class at the end of the semester ; this was followed by extensive, in-class discussion . While Dr. Miller does not think that direct debates with creationists are helpful or productive, he does encourage scientists be aware of  and understand the bases of other views. Through the study and discussion of creationism, he hoped that students would come to understand what information was being taken out of context. He also encouraged them to listen, rather than making wholesale judgements about what others think; everyone’s beliefs and ideas have multiple dimensions and need to be taken seriously. 

As an emeritus professor, Dr. Miller is continuing to work with the Paleontological Society and University. Besides his work on the Center’s Advisory Board, he is also helping to develop a Digital Futures Consultant program for new and young faculty at the University of Cincinnati. He’s also becoming more politically involved; in the most recent election, he served as a poll watcher and on a “Protect the Vote” hotline for people who had questions about how to vote.  

Dr. Miller’s message is one of encouragement. He wants people to keep their minds open to other people and opportunities around them, especially those outside of the classroom. Had it not been for the experiences he had in college, especially those that focused on working with data  , he likely would have taken a different path. In recruiting diverse participants to paleontology and geology, he advocates speaking  about the diverse opportunities there are for people who want to work in these areas.  “Field work and adventures in the out of doors can be off-putting, at least initially, to people who grow up in  urban settings, for example, and yet we do other things that aren’t field work, such as working on computers and in geochemistry labs.” Paleontology and geology are not just for those who enjoy field work and dinosaurs; these fields, and science in general, are diverse and have something for everyone.  

Scientists Aren’t in a Bubble, and Their Work Isn’t in a Vacuum

Written by Emily Michelle Bruff Simpson, Geology PhD student at the University of Cincinnati and the Center’s new Outreach and Social Media Coordinator 

No one lives in a bubble. We are influenced by the world around us, and we influence our world. Scientists are no exception; although we might try to be neutral in our work, we are humans too, each with our own pasts, hopes, and ideas. Recent current events have led many researchers to re-examine our own biases with a desire to do better.

To a point, this happens every time we experience a hate-related tragedy.  But personally, as a young woman in science pursuing a doctorate and a career in academia who has watched these conversations over the years, I saw something new this past June. I saw the academic societies that I am a member of put out statements such as this: 

Diversity statement recently written by a scientific society

I have never seen systematic racism and sexism addressed in scientific communities the way that it has been this year. It gave me hope. However, it also felt empty; many groups issued statements of support with little guidance of how we can do better in academia. But the widespread recognition of our own biases is a new beginning. 

Dr. Potochnik, the Director of the University of Cincinnati Center for Public Engagement in Science, recently published an op-ed in Scientific American addressing the need for this recognition, titled “Awareness of Our Biases is Essential to Good Science.” She wrote it in response to a piece by Lawrence Krauss, which suggested that science has become ‘ideologically corrupted’ by current concerns for racism and sexism. In her reply, rather than encouraging scientists to strive to work in a vacuum, Potochnik advocates for “ideological awareness,” or acknowledging our own biases so that blind spots can be brought to light and gaps can be better accounted for. 

We had the opportunity after her article came out to discuss her thoughts behind writing it. Here is our discussion: 

Question: What inspired you to write an opinion piece now? 

Dr. Potochnik: The roles social and political values play in science is a research interest of mine, and it’s something that I think is an interesting topic to have in the public’s eye. In brief, I think a lot of the confusing features of science, like how there can sometimes seem to be conflicting findings over time, and disagreement among researchers, can be better understood if we appreciate how our interests and concerns and assumptions shape what questions are asked. I also think that greater awareness of how values shape scientific investigations could lead to scientists and the public audience for science to push for science that accomplishes the sort of goals we have, rather than just thinking any legitimate research is equally good.  

This op-ed by Lawrence Krauss was a good opportunity for me to wade into these topics, since he seemed to presume that traditional research is entirely objective, and the problem only starts when the humanities caused scientists to start worrying about values. In my opinion, that is exactly backwards.  

Question: This is more of a nuts and bolts question. People are hearing a little bit about how peer-review works in the midst of COVID-19. What we publish has to be approved based on our data, our methods, and the basis of our ideas. What process did your article go through as an op-ed before being published? What place do these hold in the scientific community?  

Dr. Potochnik:  Well, keep in mind that this isn’t an academic article; it is an opinion piece in a popular venue. So there’s no peer review. The editor reads the pitch or draft piece, then makes a call on whether to accept. Then it goes into editing, and often the author doesn’t even see what changes they make in editing. The editors choose the title usually. When it comes to academic research, though, philosophy has peer review just like scientific disciplines.  

Opinion pieces for a popular audience, like this, can sometimes raise the profile of one’s academic research. But they don’t usually “count” as research, rather, universities tend to see them as outreach or professional service.  

Question: You summarize a point made by Dr. Richard Levins in 2006, saying thathis scientific work begins with the question of what science “will do for the children.” Is there a question that everything you do “begins with?” 

Dr. Potochnik: Good question. I don’t think so. But, the ideas I like to think about revolve around how science is shaped by its human audience, and how complex the world is.  

Question: In terms intended for the non-philosopher/scientist, how would you explain the line between “science being led astray by values” and “ideological awareness”? 

As I described in that opinion piece, I think there are two ways the influence of values on science can go wrong.  

One is if the values play illegitimate roles in scientific methods. A simple example: a widely shared value like “all people should have access to clean water” is problematic if it is used as a reason to ignore data. If researchers see that there is elevated lead in some drinking water, but say “everyone should have clean water, so we will ignore that!” then this is an illegitimate influence due to the role the value is playing.  

The second is if the wrong values influence our science, even if the role those values play in scientific methods is unproblematic. Historically, there’s been much less medical research on women than men, which has led to practical implications like medicine dosage being less appropriate for those with the average body mass of women. There’s not necessarily anything scientifically wrong with the research that was conducted, but it prioritized men in a way that is problematic given that presumably we believe women and men are equally deserving of good health care.  

Question: As I’ve watched the response to social injustice within the scientific community spearheaded by bold museums, societies, and even amateur groups… I’ve also pondered where to start. We want to encourage more diversity in the sciences and recognize our biases. How do we do this as scientists in fields not directly dealing with these issues? For example, a medical study should be including women so that we know how medicine impacts us. But what about those who aren’t actively studying people?  Of course, you mention involving those in the humanities in these conversations. Are there other practical suggestions being discussed, both at the individual and institutional level?  

Dr. Potochnik: Even your question hints at a lot of different answers to this! We can all work to promote diversity of scientists, students, and viewpoints in our own disciplines, in a variety of ways. We can think about the exact focus of our research and whether there’s a way to focus it or conduct it slightly differently that would improve the endpoint or the process, including who’s involved in the process and how. And yes, I think talking across disciplines is potentially hugely helpful! For example, I know a number of philosophers who have temporarily or permanently been embedded in a scientific lab, and I think it’s been helpful for all involved.  

We can also push back when scientists write op-eds complaining that science has gone awry because of attention to racism and sexism!  More generally, my hope is that cultivating a closer relationship between science and the broader public will contribute to redefining the kinds of people who contribute to science and the kinds of people who deserve to influence what science is accomplishing.  

This is just gesturing in some of the directions I saw in your question. This is a very important question, and I am no expert on how to answer it.  

Question:  What is your reaction to the discussions happening now regarding diversity in STEM fields?  

Like you, I’m impressed by the attention that the Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo Movement have received in science, and especially ‘grassroots’ actions that have been taken. I think that’s the direction change is really made in. More generally, over decades, philosophers of science and scientists alike have more broadly appreciated that science is part of society, and that we need to consider that relationship and work to make it what it should be. There’s lots of work to do, but like you, I am optimistic.  

University of Dayton Colloquium Moved Online

Student discussion around a table

The Doing Science in a Pluralistic Society Colloquium at the University of Dayton will now take place online. The new dates for the colloquium are April 17 and 24. This should be a really interesting event which tackles the question: If science is to serve humanity, how can that be done given the vast diversity that exists among people and cultures? On April 24 Center Director Angela Potochnik and Center Post-Doc Melissa Jacquart will give a presentation on “Divergence of Values and Goals in Participatory Research.” For more information about the colloquium and how to access the online sessions please visit this website.