The Library’s History

Chartered in 1835, as an association of members, the Mercantile Library, moved to the Cincinnati College building in 1840. The Library’s collection survived fires that twice destroyed College buildings.

Herman Melville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William M. Thackeray, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are among the many prominent speakers who have addressed the Library, now housed on the eleventh floor of the Mercantile Library Building.

This is our story.

THE MERCANTILE BUILDING, 1890

Since 1835

The 45 young merchants who started the “Young Men’s Mercantile Library Association” in the then frontier city of Cincinnati understood the value of networking as well as information and knowledge. They sought both intellectual and moral self-improvement. Education was a means to higher rungs on the young republic’s social and economic ladders. Books and study were also an alternative to the barroom and the street.

Subscription libraries like this sprang up across North America following the example of The Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731 by Benjamin Franklin and a circle of his friends. By the 19th century, libraries were evolving specific to class and profession. Mechanics Institutes served technical tradesmen. Athenaeums and Society libraries catered to certain classes and social circles. Mercantile Libraries were the domain of the country’s emergent merchant class, which grasped the usefulness to their profession of a well-rounded education.

The chief instigator behind founding Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library was a junior partner in the grocery firm of Worthington and Ranney, one Moses Ranney, a boarder at the Dennison Hotel. He and his fellow bookworms started with $1800 and 700 books. They first met over a fire house, then rented a room near Pearl Street, the site of the city’s first public market. In the beginning, they struggled to build a membership that could pay sufficient dues to meet their costs, but as their ranks and collection grew, the library found stability and commodious quarters in the Cincinnati College Building on Walnut Street. From there it would grow to influence the region’s cultural, commercial, and literary landscapes, hosting prominent lecturers and counting among its members men, and beginning in 1859 women, who went on to leave their indelible mark on the city and region.

10,000 Years at 414 Walnut

Picture a smoky, book-lined room, mahogany desks strewn with newspapers. Steamboats whistles and streetcar bells intrude on the air of quiet concentration among the merchants and clerks who come here daily, keen to read the latest news and trends. In January of 1845, when fire tears through the building it burns slowly enough that members who live nearby manage to save most of the collection from the flames. By then, the Mercantile Library’s members, having set up shop on the major commercial artery of the Westward Expansion, enjoy a degree of success, enabling them contribute $10,000 toward rebuilding. In exchange, a ten-thousand year lease is negotiated with the owner, The Cincinnati College. It’s thanks to those 10 centuries of pre-paid rent–renewable–that Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library has survived, its identity intact, while many similar libraries disappeared or were subsumed by other institutions.

In 1839 the Mercantile Library also founded and provided space for Cincinnati’s Chamber of Commerce which in turn established the “Merchant’s Exchange”, a bureau that expressly collected and disseminated commercial statistics and information: prices, imports, exports, timetables for steam- and canal-boats departures and arrivals. Here, on August 20, 1847, telegraph promoter Henry O’Reilly installed the first Morse telegraph in the West, carrying vital business intelligence from the coast. The Mercantile Library was now a busy social, cultural, and network-connected hub, central to the economic powerhouse that the Queen City of the West had become.

It survived Civil War, and in 1869, a second fire. At the turn of the century, in the midst of the vertical building boom that gripped the city’s central business district, the present-day 12-story Mercantile Library Building went up, with custom accommodations for the library on its 11th floor. In 1904, the Mercantile Library moved into the current Reading Room, with glass-floored stacks and high, arched windows to admit plenty of light into a library that had been lit, when it began, with oil and tallow. At 100 years, in the midst of the Depression, membership and circulation dipped dangerously low. During the dark days of a second World War, the Mercantile shipped books to servicemen and -women, and granted library privileges to all military personnel in uniform.

Post-war prosperity brought new diversions to Americans, and the Mercantile Library found itself out of step with the times, struggling to find its identity. It needed fresh members and a reinvigorated sense of purpose. The Board considered selling the library’s perpetual lease, and moving. New leadership was needed. It found this in the person of Jean Springer, a former WASP (Women Air Force Service Pilot), hired in 1969.

THE MERCANTILE BUILDING, 1907

THE ANNUAL MEETING, 1913

“We are young men. We are banded together for self-improvement. Very limited, for the most part, have been our educational advantages, yet we believe in an enlightened age—in a land of liberty—the sun of knowledge, in its meridian splendor, is beaming down upon us. The World, itself, is waking up, and shaking off the lethargy of ages. Shall we be sluggards? Nay, but let us grasp at every means of self-improvement within our reach; let us read, think, act, in the living present …”

JEAN SPRINGER, WASP & CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL RECIPIENT

The Springer Era

Springer got down to business reinvigorating what many had come to see as a small club of old men. Having honed her public relations skills working for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, She found new funding sources, recruited younger staff members, and championed the library a as a platform to civic-minded new members by putting on events that included the media, authors, concerts, and “Literary Lunches”, where current events were discussed. She partnered with other cultural organizations, hosted a book sale. In 1972, to celebrate the installation of air-conditioning, sangria was served. Springer brought in Sloan Wilson, Julie Harris, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning David Halberstam. She partnered with the University of Cincinnati on a series of educational lunchtime lectures, and organized “fund-raising travel adventure” trips to U.S. cities, and, in 1985, for the library’s 150th anniversary, to England.

That same year the library held a week-long festival culminating in a lecture by the Nobel Prize Winner Saul Bellow. His appearance became the blueprint for the Niehoff Lecture, the Mercantile’s annual black-tie fundraiser lecture, at the behest of, and underwritten by library patrons Buck and Patti Niehoff. The Niehoff Lectures continue to attract the most influential writers and speakers of our day. These and other ongoing lecture series on literature, activism, urbanism, science, technology, design, and the vital issues of our day have returned the Mercantile Library to the front lines of literature and culture.

The 21st Century & Beyond

In 1994, writer and novelist Albert Pyle furthered Springer’s mission by expanding the library’s role as a civic, cultural, and literary forum while cultivating the best parts of its unique historical identity. The forward and backward-looking Pyle showed immense talent for planning, as well as networking and fundraising, presiding over three renovations. The12th floor room was made over into a handsome, Arts & Crafts lecture hall. Pyle restored the lobby to its former grandeur, and oversaw renovation of the 11th floor Reading Room just in time for the Mercantile’s 175th anniversary.

Following Pyle’s retirement, journalist John Faherty took the helm. He continues to build the Mercantile’s programming, bringing in authors, panel discussions, concerts, and charrettes that challenge and engage, that expand intellects and deepen empathy. Faherty’s push to attract diverse young members has brought the membership back to numbers not seen since before WWI.

Today, as then, Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library is both a library and a gathering place. Here, in a library that anchors our city to its past and lights the way for our future, Cincinnati’s next generation of leaders and creators meet, work, socialize, and learn.

THE MERCANTILE BUILDING, 2018

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