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.
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
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.
In the Summer of 2020, the Mercantile Library co-hosted “A Pact with Reason,” presented by Dr. Piers Bursill-Hall and co-sponsored by Dr. Zvi Biener and Dr. Terry Grundy. Bursill-Hall is a philosopher of science at Cambridge. His interests include the history of the development of math and science in Western societies. Grundy describes him as a “natural showman” who attracted a large, global audience, many of whom were not scientists or philosophers. The Mercantile Library reported one of the largest audiences they have had for an event.
Conversations between Grundy and Bursill-Hall about a “weakening fidelity to truth and reason” in society inspired the series. Despite the broad topic, they wanted to tell the story of Western civilization’s “Pact with Reason” and how it developed over the centuries. As Bursill-Hall wrapped up the 10-part series, the audience demanded—and even sponsored—a two-part encore expanding on the briefly, previously mentioned Galileo Affair.
Center Faculty Affiliate Zvi Biener is co-sponsoring A Pact With Reason, a series of ten free lectures by Dr. Piers Bursill-Hall of Cambridge University hosted by the Mercantile Library. The lectures will begin on Thursday, July 16, at 1:00 p.m. (EST) and continue weekly.
The lectures provide a dynamic overview of the rationalist, scientific tradition that has given human civilization some of its greatest triumphs but has also precipitated some of its greatest failures. The lectures are of timely importance since we see daily evidence that some are turning away from facts, science, and reason itself as the basis for structuring our everyday life and beliefs. This is a very dangerous turn of events and one that we need to combat vigorously. To do that, we need to understand our “pact with reason:” how it emerged, the twists and turns it has taken for over two and a half millennia, and the place it has brought us to now in 2020. Those are the topics that will be covered in these ten lectures.
Piers Bursill-Hall is a highly regarded lecturer on the history and philosophy of science and mathematics at Cambridge University. His talks on the history of science, mathematics, and medicine are celebrated for their breadth of knowledge, insights, clarity, and wit.
The first part of the discussion will assess the historical and scientific claims Pollan makes with reference to two scientific papers: one from 1966 detailing an experiment done on the effects of psychedelics on spiritual experiences, the other a 2014 study on the effects of psilocybin on brain states. Which claims are most interesting and why? How can scientific laypeople leverage other scientific sources to fact-check information? And how much responsibility should we feel to do so?
The second part of the discussion will focus on participants’ reactions to the book. Are we convinced by Pollan’s arguments? Do we disagree with anything? Has he motivated us to “change our minds”?
Please join for this fascinating discussion intertwining science, good writing, and psychadelics. The discussion will be virtual via the Zoom platform. This event is free and open to the public (members and non-members of the Mercantile Library alike).
The final meeting for the Public Engagement with Science graduate course just wrapped up. Students from MA and PhD programs in Anthropology, Biology, Geology, Philosophy, Professional Writing, and Sociology explored the theory and practice of engaging with the public about science. Students worked in interdisciplinary teams to develop outreach projects with local science engagement organizations.
Watch this space in the coming weeks to learn about their projects with the Cincinnati Nature Center, Mercantile Library, University of Cincinnati Field Station, and Children’s Hospital Center for Pediatric Genomics.
Thank you to Brenda Hunda, Amy Hunter, and Curtis Webb for joining the Public Engagement with Science class last week! Brenda talked with us about her work at the Cincinnati Museum Center and reminded us the importance of meeting an audience where they are and connecting to their lives. Amy talked about the founding of the Mercantile Library and its goal of providing education to people who do not otherwise have access to it. Curtis discussed activities of the Cincinnati Project, including one on women of color in Cincinnati, and another on evictions. Other topics of discussion included public access to information, reaching families rather that just individuals, and learning through play. The class was encouraged to be flexible and make sure that outreach is alway accessible to everyone. This was a great way for the students to connect with potential project partners!
In this Humanities Unbound episode of the Taft Research Center at the University of Cincinnati, Nancy Tuana (Penn State) speaks with Taft Center Director Amy Lind about how climate change affects women and men differently and other topics about climate change and social justice. You can listen to the episode here (link); the Humanities Unbound series is also available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
This episode was recorded when Tuana visited Cincinnati this fall for CLIMATE CHANGE/CINCINNATI, an event series the UC Center for Public Engagement with Science put on with the Mercantile Library. See here (link) for a writeup about this series in CityBeat.
The third and final event of the CLIMATE CHANGE/CINCINNATI series at the Mercantile Library in downtown Cincinnati is tonight. The series is cosponsored by our Center and the Taft Research Center, also at UC. This event, Climate Change and Cincinnati Life, is a panel discussion with local experts on sustainability steps being taken by local government and other entities, how local farming is impacted by climate change and can contribute to sustainability, and energy use and changes in our region.
Chris Anderson has written a really nice discussion of the Climate Change/Cincinnati series. Read the full article here (link).
Nancy Tuana, Dupont/Class of 1948 Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at Penn State, addressed a full house at the Mercantile Library in downtown Cincinnati. She discussed the formidable social justice implications of climate change, worldwide and locally here in Cincinnati. This was the second of three events in the series CLIMATE CHANGE/CINCINNATI.