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Director’s Report for the 175th Annual Meeting of the St. Louis Mercantile Library

"The Idea of the Mercantile Library"
Our anniversary exhibition currently on display across the galleries, Americana as a Way of Life at the St. Louis Mercantile Library for 175 Years, is vast, yes; but I feel it merely scratched the surface in celebrating how individuals from all walks of life who distinguished themselves on three plateaus—country, city, and our library—could be brought together for such a theme. I wish we had had several more acres to bring out even more examples of how and why we collected, and in the process, further defined the Mercantile’s legacy for this community. As we create presentations and tours, I keep thinking of others I want to celebrate.

Lives were intertwined at the Mercantile in historical and cultural endeavors for generations. Joseph Pulitzer was studying here to gain a grasp of English as a young immigrant, then a few short years later, invented what we still know today as mass communications in the English language; Stan Musial quietly read the sports files of his own exploits from our newspaper holdings; the exuberant on stage dances of Lola Montez, performed in our first building’s auditorium; Harriet Beecher Stowe reading on stage, Susan B. Anthony crusading; Bingham and Meeker creating our art collection and making promotional talks here about the support of local artists, to which we always have adhered; Senator Paul Simon revising his classic work on Elijah Lovejoy in the Mercantile’s Reference Room, summoned to Charlie’s phone to take a quick call from the White House; Lovejoy himself working in the St. Louis press and in our merged predecessor institution, the Lyceum, before fatefully moving to Alton; Historian John Hope Franklin delivering an inspirational speech for the old Lunch & Lecture Series; international writers like Thackeray and Wilde enriching local American lives here at this library, in person in St. Louis before the frontier receded, or after it was long ended. Famed artists, politicians, journalists and sports writers, athletes, musicians—all have been friends and readers in this institution. This is the story of cultural ferment for the good in this treasured Library.
The early reading room of the Mercantile Library at 510 Locust Street, St. Louis, c.1890.
From the photo archives of the St. Louis Mercantile Library Special Collections
I have been thinking especially of one more of these individuals who lived for an extended time in St. Louis and wrote about some of those Specimen Days as he called them in his memoirs; a man who was a loyal member of the Mercantile and used it deeply, and a man who will always be in the top handful of greatest American poets--if not the greatest of them all-- Walt Whitman. He discerned a great city in motion and with towering aspirations when he arrived in St. Louis. He saw the great bridge glistening in its newly constructed glory. He appreciated the history and the forward-thinking of the city’s cultural epicenter, the Mercantile, and so there we find him: the nation’s greatest bard; reading, observing and thinking deeply about America and American life in the Library’s Reading Room, an early temple of American history and Americana. 
Early portrait of Walt Whitman (1819-1892),
one of the most notable literary visitors of the Mercantile Library.
I like to think of this great intellect coming into the largest of the Mercantile Libraries in this nation—ours—knowing that it was founded on broad, visionary principles. Early library societies like the ones civic philanthropists founded, as the Mercantile, were called “arsenals of democracy” --a theme straight out of Leaves of Grass. Freedom and free enterprise were also celebrated in them as the birthplace of the American Dream—not just for “1-percenters” but, instead, conceivably for 100 percent of every apprentice, journeyman, or disadvantaged youth who came through doors such as these. That was the goal: to make the next generation always stronger than the past through education, reading, information, opportunity, and research. The founders were prophets thus of our mission today, which as a research library, preserves and builds great collections to serve and transform the lives of the widest number of humanities students and scholars in coordination with a great University’s educational goals, and the Library’s own similar ambitions to embrace researchers and transform young students in need of our resources wherever they reside.
   
Whitman saw that idea unfolding in its purest form. It was a powerful one and led the Library to collect, build the first reference service in the city, and much later eventually to affiliate with the University of Missouri. Being a students’ research library throughout the generations has given the Mercantile the resiliency to survive competition, imitation, the unfortunate consolidation of a varied galaxy of many charitable cultural resources of the past into, for whatever reason, a smaller solar system of local museums and libraries, and has given us the strength to brush aside trendiness, current fashion, and other distractions from the Mercantile’s collecting and programmatic goals. The steadfastness of the Mercantile, its dependability, has steeled a research mission which its true blue, dedicated supporters can readily understand, measure and embrace.
 
In this year of tragedy and renewed hope the Mercantile never faltered. It has remained open for students and researchers online and in person as a symbol of stability. Its public outreach has grown with each week of further recovery, and the Library has planned a careful return to in person celebrations of its 175th Anniversary, first with self-conducted member visits, next with enthusiastically-led docent tours for smaller groups which are increasing daily, and finally culminating in a celebration closing the anniversary in April of next year.
 
Virtual lectures, exhibition tours, stories in St. Louis Today online and in the print edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the UM-St. Louis website and alumni magazine have potentially reached, along with our regular postings to our national membership, many thousands of readers. This year not only the major catalogue to the Anniversary exhibition, A Nation, a City and its First Library, was published to much acclaim locally and nationally, but the long awaited 175th Anniversary Handbook to the Mercantile’s art collections is also forthcoming, as well as a major exhibition catalogue for the Barriger Railroad research collection, Travellers, Tracks and Tycoons; 200 Years of American Railroading, to be presented in New York City at the greatest rare book collectors’ society in the world, the Grolier Club.  Simultaneously, a short decade-by-decade history of the Mercantile will be issued, certainly an ambitious publishing schedule which doesn’t even list the highly praised series of digital stories and profiles about the Library which the staff has presented faithfully in emails and electronic newsletters. For what the Mercantile achieves, few other rare book institutions have ever charged so little for membership support as the Mercantile, and no membership group elsewhere has ever received a more gratifying sense of truly aiding in what the Mercantile promotes: the goal to serve students, carefully, painstakingly, one at a time, in depth in our reading room, study carrels, and galleries with those internships, fellowships, training, classes and research that lead to careers in this field. Our students, interns and fellows have found positions across St. Louis and the nation in special collections libraries, historical societies, and art institutions.

Of course, in the year just past, as most cultural institutions did, the Mercantile existed virtually online with strong use of our Missouri Digital Library collections, website and flicker collections, attracting hundreds of thousands of pageviews and sessions, while the Mercantile’s dedicated staff maintained these resources and presented collections for use on site. In this manner we were open to the widest number of patrons we could serve in the pandemic—thousands of readers using tens of thousands of resources. Many University of Missouri departments, from the Honors College, Alumni Engagement, African American Studies, Fine Arts and KWMU’s public radio station here used the Library; locally as well, other St. Louis universities and colleges, our national sports teams, the Missouri Historical Society, the State Historical Society, and the St. Louis Art Museum and National Public Television were served by the Mercantile with research assistance and loans of our collections to some of these cultural institutions for past or upcoming exhibitions. 
 
In this tumultuous year, the Mercantile never wavered in building its collections for the future, with individual manuscripts, rare books and large historic photo archives coming from across the nation, rare albums of river and rail photos, the photo reference files of the Waterways Journal, excessively rare newspapers and broadsides from the Civil War era, maps, early railroadiana, native American studies and important additions to the art collection vying in importance and research potential for future use and study. In this past year nearly two thousand books were added to our rare book and special collections and the University’s magnificent online catalogue.

Additionally, many key art objects were conserved this year and the core holdings of the art collection were photographed digitally to exacting modern standards for renewed use internationally. In a year just past in which thousands of the books and papers amassed here since the 1840s were examined to create our acclaimed anniversary exhibition, it is worthy to note that their revisiting was as fresh and new as the day they came here generations ago. It is supremely encouraging to report that thus, the Mercantile had time to continue in what we characterized as the Mercantile’s great collecting mission, that saga and way of life we focused upon in celebrating this great anniversary.
This portrait of Joseph Charless, Jr. was one of many paintings included in the art collection's conservation project. It is shown here in 2020 being wrapped for transportation to the conservator.
None of this could have been done without the hard work and true sacrifices of our fine staff in such a challenging year. Julie Dunn-Morton, still in my memory moving through the art collection with conservators and photographers for months to protect the collection for the future, often in lonely darkened galleries and storage rooms at the height of the pandemic, at the same time keeping our fine docent team engaged and trained online; Nick Fry patiently holding the online platforms together, enhancing them, training the students in scanning activity, while speaking to many rail groups and building our service reputation; Sara Hodge, jumping into the fray with her boundless energy to take the reins of the Pott Waterways collections and at the same time create our highly praised K-12 online curriculum; Alyssa Person, our early career curatorial fellow, who joined us as the University locked down and couldn’t wait to get on site with her attentiveness to the collections and appreciation to our Special Collections program-- patiently filming all of her colleagues for many online outreach programs was just one aspect of her demonstrated indispensability; Brittney West, who steadily maintained the schedule, created and carefully managed all aspects of our outreach and membership; and we cannot fail to acknowledge the service this past year of two colleagues—the last remaining—who came with me to establish this historic affiliation with the University of Missouri 25 years ago: Charles Brown, and Judith Friedrich who have retired, whose shoes will be hard to fill in the Reference Room and the Cataloguing Room. To them and to Christopher Dames, Jaleh Fazelian and Liz Richter from the University Libraries goes all my gratitude.
Judy Friedrich
Charles Brown
And to the Mercantile’s donors, led by the William Lane Scott Family Trust; the Luce Foundation; the Herman T. and Phenie R. Pott Foundation; the Estate of John W. Barriger IV; Union Pacific; Dave Jump; Jane Piper Gleason; Beau Brauer and Hunter Engineering ; Commerce Bankshares; William Piper; the Northern Trust; Christy James; Tom Reh; James Schiele; Robert Morrissey; The Way Trust, the Candelaria Fund; John Ritchie; Spencer Burke; Philip Loughlin; and the Mathews Foundation, to our loyal membership and to anonymous donors and volunteers who donated countless hours go my sincerest thanks for making this year one of the strongest in terms of financial giving to this institution, registering faith in the Library’s goals and programs and assuring their health for years to come.
 
Here in the 175th Anniversary of this great cultural and educational institution, I close with noting how an ancient library’s unflinching mission as a research institution has been transformative for itself and its community. Recently, an old friend and fellow library director wrote an appreciation of the Mercantile, writing that of all the great American research libraries, which were often merely established from wealthy collectors’ books transformed artificially into public collections, “the St. Louis Mercantile Library stood apart, and was always based on a commitment to an idea and the steady pursuit of that vision for generations. The results are breathtaking.” The vast online Rare Book Hub/Americana Exchange has recently said the Mercantile, in succeeding over 175 years as a collecting institution is rare and must be appreciated, when one is given the unrelenting potential for failure.  Moving with the times based on steadfast adherence to excellent collections is the Mercantile Library’s hallmark, dramatically brought home to me when the St. Louis Development Corporation asked if they could use our most popular publication, Mapping St. Louis History which particularly well represents St. Louis’ rich history of mapping for an internationally attended geospatial convention to establish St. Louis once again as a geospatial center of excellence, just as in the day of the early French authoritative cartographers. Just as three centuries past, the Mercantile stands tall in centrality to cultural endeavors in this great city.
A few days ago, a young St. Louis professional visited the anniversary exhibition, carefully viewing each case reverently and so overwhelmed at the end that he told the attending staff how grateful he was that the St. Louis community had such a wonderful institutional resource as the Mercantile. That lone comment, from a symbolic scion of the tradespeople and merchants who founded this institution long ago, should mean more to our members in terms of registering our success in this community than a thousand tweets, online posts, magisterial exhibition catalogues or press headlines. Whitman talked of how his singular life was registered as something transcendent through multitudes of experience—our single idea he would have readily seen and understood here as “large, containing multitudes” for our readers and our friends of books, cultural discourse and learned study.
 
Thank you again for another fine year of aid in promoting that idea.
 
--John Neal Hoover
nota bene: John's forthcoming publication, An Informal History of the Mercantile Library; Serving St. Louis and the World Decade by Productive Decade will be available in early 2022.


A Member-Supported Library of Rare Books,
Historic Archives, and Fine Art; Forming an
Academic Research Center of History and
Cultural Studies, including the Barriger
Railroad and Pott Inland Waterways Libraries
and the Mercantile Library Art Museum.
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