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At about 90,000 volumes, the Mercantile Library’s book collection covers a broad spectrum of works and subjects. It reflects 180 years of organic growth reflecting shifting interests, tastes, and influences.
About The Collection
At about 90,000 volumes, the Mercantile Library’s book collection covers a broad spectrum of works and subjects. It reflects 180 years of organic growth reflecting shifting interests, tastes, and influences. In the beginning, books were selected for their educational value by the merchants and clerks who sought reliable information and to supplement a lack of formal education. The First Catalog case, housed in the 12th floor Lecture Hall, contains books that were part of the library’s first purchase and have survived two fires. Their spines offer a cross-section of early reading interests: titles seen to foster intellectual growth, works on philosophy, political theory, history, the classics, and biography.
The collection is organized according to the Dewey Decimal system, and shelved primarily in the north stacks, where you will find most subjects and biographies. The south stacks contain poetry, Shakespeare, and the Travel and Geography section, which is rich in works written for armchair travelers from an age when books were the safest and easiest way to experience the world.
Early in its history, the library avoided collecting popular fiction, demand won out and fiction began to find its way into the stacks. Reading preferences tilted from self-improvement to relaxation and escape. Over the years members have enjoyed everything from serious literary works to novels of fantasy, adventure, science fiction, and intrigue. The golden age of detective fiction is particularly well-represented in the fiction collection, located on the first level of the North Stacks. The American History Collection is sizable, having been dedicated to librarian John M. Newton, who died at his post. And the Cincinnati Collection, while modest, contains lives, works, and pamphlets with local historical relevance.
The oldest book in the collection is a 1614 edition of Hieroglyphica or “Commentaries on the Sacred Letters of the Egyptians” by the Renaissance humanist Johannes Pierius Valerianus, followed closely by a 1615 life of Louis XII. Rare works indicative of the histories of print and storytelling, many of which were donated, have enriched the collection: a volume from Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, bound serial first sets of Dicken’s Dombey & Son and Our Mutual Friend. There are early editions of works by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who spoke here and in whose name the library gives out an annual award honoring writers “writing to change the world”. Many books carry plates from the long-since disappeared book stores that once filled downtown. While the catalog and circulation management system is now online , books still carry circulation cards penciled with members’ card numbers, stamped with due dates. This unique collection mirrors almost two centuries of the literary pursuits and interests of our city. Works continue to circulate to members and the library actively purchases popular fiction and non-fiction, scholarly works, and books pertinent to its ongoing interest groups and lectures. The collection continues to delight and surprise those who explore it, offering the magic of discovery, of stumbling on both well-thumbed and freshly pressed works.
The Mercantile Library’s art collection, anchored by portrait busts, is one of the oldest public art collections in the city. Many of the works were acquired abroad. Sculptures and paintings include influential regional leaders, writers, and politicians, and are worth an afternoon of exploration.