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/

New Affiliate Spotlight: Dr. Eduardo Martinez

This semester, we are excited to welcome Dr. Eduardo Martinez to the University of Cincinnati philosophy department and as an affiliate of the Center for Public Engagement with Science. Drawn to UC by the interdisciplinary philosophy community and by an interest in the current environment of the midwest, Dr. Martinez is a philosopher with an interest in democratic theory. 

Democratic theory is the way that philosophers evaluate institutions, elected officials, and the groups that influence them. It also models their decisions and actions. Dr. Martinez is particularly interested in understanding the influence of non-elected officials. Democratic theory research results in debates over how to better represent the population, assess the ideas of the public, and hold officials accountable. Early on, papers are aimed at other researchers. However, Dr. Martinez wants his research to influence how he communicates and teaches. He also encourages people to make themselves heard in ways beyond voting and surveys by joining advocacy groups and being active in their communities. For example, one ongoing discussion encompasses climate change; because it is slow, it might not be the drive behind the public’s vote. However, it is still important that it be acted on. 

One idea that democratic theory addresses is how government agencies writing policies interact with the public. When these agencies ask for public opinion, there is potential for the answers they receive to not lead to actions that the public wants. Partly, this might be the result of who answers the survey if only those who are passionate about a topic will respond. Additionally, the way that information is presented before a question is asked, and how the question is asked, may influence how people answer. They may also respond based on how they identify with a political party, religion, race, or other group. Dr. Martinez is currently working on co-authoring a paper that examines the role that such identities play. Although many theorists describe and model actions in simple or “ideal” situations, Dr. Martinez is more focused on more complicated scenarios. Work like his can be used in further discussions that lead to policy writing. 

Dr. Martinez was drawn to philosophy because it gave him the flexibility as a student to ask questions and do interdisciplinary research, combining empirical data and abstract ideas. During his time in graduate school, he coached an ethics bowl team at a local high school. He plans to pass his enthusiasm on to students at UC by teaching classes on civics. Civics classes, he said, need to communicate more than the basic process of bills becoming laws; he intends to teach classes that involve students discussing current events, as well as collecting information and taking action in their communities. He hopes to encourage students, who are also citizens, to actively work to solve problems around them, rather than merely regurgitating facts. He also hopes to communicate his work to his new community in Cincinnati in partnership with the Center for Public Engagement with Science, increasing people’s exposure to new groups and ideas. He is participating in the Center’s efforts to write a series of papers that is meant to give researchers guidance in science communication. He hopes to continue to work with scientists who are doing work related to current politics to promote communicating this work to the public.  

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: 

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.  

Guest blog post

Toward a More Expansive Conception of Philosophy

In a guest post for Daily Nous, a blog about the philosophy profession, Center Director Angela Potochnik writes about initiatives in the UC Philosophy Department and how these relate to an expanded view of the nature of philosophy and philosophy training. The Center is featured prominently in the discussion.

To whom are we as philosophers speaking and responding; whom do we judge as being worthy of dialogue and, hopefully, our intellectual contributions?

Read the post, “Toward a More Expansive Conception of Philosophy,” here (link).

Congratulations to Center Post-Doc Melissa Jacquart!








We are pleased to announce that Center Post-Doc Dr. Melissa Jacquart will be joining the University of Cincinnati Department of Philosophy as a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the Fall of 2020! Melissa has been working with the Center for Public Engagement with Science for two years now and has been an integral part of Center activities. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Western Ontario and was previously a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Melissa will continue to work with the Center going forward! To learn more about Melissa and her research, here is a link to her website: https://melissajacquart.com/.

Philosophy of Science Communication Medium Page

Center Post-Doc Melissa Jacquart contributes to an exciting Medium page on the Philosophy of Science Communication: medium.com/@philscicomm. The page takes the perspective of the History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) and Science, Technology, and Society (STS). If you visit the page you will get access to a number of interesting interviews and posts by members that give a valuable perspective on communicating science.