If your job were to nourish and to advance a venerable cultural institution so skillfully that its dignity and integrity would be burnished while, at the same time, you send it riding high into the cultural and civic mainstream by selling it to an over-stimulated, word and image weary public, what would you do, what should you do?
This is the challenge to John Neal Hoover, director for a quarter century of the St. Louis Mercantile Library and a member of the staff for a total of 32 years. He approaches issues of maintenance and relevance such as those above with confidence and optimism, inspired by the denizens of his fascinating island, a rare and special place positioned securely in a contentious, contemporary world.
Basically, Hoover does what directors of the Library have done since 1846, the year the Mercantile Library began life as the sole repository of things of value and virtue in St. Louis.
“We collect into the future,” he says. “We make collections accessible to the public and we grow them for the public.” That means the past is recognized as immediately being the present and the future, that it is living, and it should accompany us as we move forward into an inchoate and frightening future.
As is true with a number of cultural assets in this region -- other libraries, abandoned industrial and institutional buildings, sites of glory and of suffering, prehistoric remnants (many of them plowed under), decaying neighborhoods -- the Mercantile Library often seems like the prophet who is not without honor except in his own country.
And yet, if there were ever an institution that deserves attention, this is it. It is built literally of objects that are rich, eclectic, exotic or bizarre sometimes, regularly rare, usually germane to regional and national history, at times beautiful beyond imagining and at other times ugly indictments of our iniquitousness.
When it was downtown, it was either considered a fusty private club, up one floor from St. Louis Union Trust, guardian of our Old Money, or a taxidermied relic, existing in thin air in a bell jar.
It is neither.
Admission’s free; the open hours are generous. The staff is helpful and enthusiastic and smart. There are comfortable places to take in the special visual and intellectual dynamism. If you sit in any of the galleries or reading rooms or walk through the exhibitions, you can let your eyes and imagination swirl freely.
Collecting into the future may mean purchasing what is happening this red-hot minute.
As Hoover and I sat in his office, Chuck Berry sat beside him in a not unsubstantial portrait. For posterity, Hoover will be asked to explain why Berry is there. The answer, fundamentally, is that Chuck Berry is part of us and part of the world – and part of a collection for the future at the Mercantile Library.
Both Berry’s picture and the late Dr. Helen Nash’s comprehensive collection of African Americana and Africana work together, along with other books and objects and pictures, to illuminate African-American artistic and literary contributions to our region and to the world.
Dr. Nash’s legacy of 1,000 books and pamphlets provide pointed and horrifying lessons, too – recollections of slavery and post-Emancipation Proclamation de facto slavery and unceasing oppression. The audience for this is not only African Americans but all of us, and for the future.
Ferguson, after all, is about a mile away from the Library’s doors. Dr. Nash and her collection can help us to understand all that better.
Going forward means providing a sense of how to fit pieces of the historic, material, cultural and anthropological puzzles of this region and this country together, the better to understand who we are today and how we got to be the way we are. Part of the reason we appear to ourselves to be so politically and psychologically fragmented comes clear at the Mercantile Library. The answer, in part anyway, can be laid at the feet of our living, breathing fragmented past.
Finding 'New France'
Another part of this forward motion mission runs in reverse, back to the 1600s. Thanks to generous donors, Hoover and the Library bought a book published in Nuremberg in the 17th century. It is a fragile, small book bound in faded marbled paper, its typography exquisitely primitive, in ensemble a definition of post-medieval antiquity. It is one of the original and extremely rare copies of “The Description of Louisiana,” the first of four books based on explorations of “New France” by priests of the order of Recollets, a French reform branch of the Franciscans.
Hoover notes that this was “the first book by the explorer Louis Hennepin and one of the rare Nuremburg editions of the 1689 ‘Description of Louisiana.’” It was the first book to use the term “Louisiana” in print, adding it to the Melchisédech Thévenot map of the Mississippi, one of the very first of the region where our ancestors lived in the past and many of us will probably continue to live in the future.
These missionaries-explorers were sent to North America by Louis XIV. The observations by Hennepin (many apparently products of his imagination and dismissed today as fabulism) were collected and published, and were dedicated to the king.
Although these books are of interest to scholars, the curious amateur visitor is connected to his or her raw American past in documents such as this, and in them gets a sense of the explorers’ awe when confronted with the overwhelming vastness of the country.
The recent acquisition of this book can be contrasted to another, entirely contemporary, altogether funkier works of art now in the Library’s collection. Their acquisition provides a very good story as well as a case study in hands-on collecting.
Passing through Ferguson, Hoover noticed painted signs of artistic presence languishing in the street, naked to the elements and in danger of being torn up or driven over or hauled off and discarded. Where others saw rubbish, he saw beauty and found meaning. They were part of a street collection of extraordinary relevance, leftovers from the unrest and tragedies of Ferguson that affected the entire region.
He enlisted the aid of Charles Brown, the Library’s head of reference services and, importantly, its St. Louis subjects specialist. The two piled into Brown’s truck and rescued the signs. They will be forever part of the Library’s collection and its life, reminders of dark moments exalted to light, in some small degree, by words and colors generated by hurt, emotion, discrimination and the potential of progress and of hope.
And so the collecting current keeps rolling along in an institution that brings all sorts of pieces to the complicated puzzle that is St. Louis.
Recognizing its value
In its accommodating quarters, the displays and books and paintings and even a human skeleton tantalize visitors with something new, even if it’s old. The Library opens the lens of our interior cameras, the better to see our city, our region, our state, as well as America and the world, which individually and collectively generate a cyclone of revelation.
The fact that this 170-year-old institution can say it is the oldest general library in continuous existence west of the Mississippi doesn’t make much of a dent in the armor of public interest, nor does the fact that its rare and sometimes bizarre collections are of inestimable value both monetarily and academically and are known all over the world.
Hoover’s forward collecting fundamentally continues to do business as the library always has – although some years ago it ceased sending books to patrons wrapped in brown paper tied up in string and delivered by letter carriers, and has become more of an exhibitions institution rather than a research facility.
“We’ve never rested,” Hoover said. “We have a legendary collection, but we have never really rested on our laurels.” Recognizing that human industry never stops, there is no cut off date for acquisitions, so growth into the future is not only possible but demanded.
Thanks to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the Library found a safe haven in 1998 when it moved to the Thomas Jefferson Library building,> There, the Mercantile hasn’t had to worry about building upkeep, as it did in its splendid old quarters downtown at 510 Locust St.
On April 1, the Mercantile will offer a feast for donors at a fundraiser in the Library. The celebration also marks the official opening of the second in a series of five special exhibitions ballyhooing this fluid, fluent collection. The party inaugurates a path forward, gates leading to the institution’s 175th birthday.
The first show, Hoover said, was “Mapping St. Louis History.” Then comes the current one, “Audubon and Beyond; Five Centuries of Natural History.”
Next, he said "will be our very first on the historic newspapers of our region and further afield, to give a review of two centuries of the Mercantile collection of these great sources."
And the fouth? "The final of these four will be 'Americana at the Mercantile,' " Hoover said. "These four shows are a history of our collecting for generations for the community of scholars and readers we serve. We are also doing smaller shows on Women on the Frontier; a retrospective on the print collection; modern photography in the collection and a show dealing with pictographic maps.”
The current natural history show provides a grand opportunity for the Library to show off its extraordinary collection of work by John James Audubon, whose life figures prominently in Missouri history and his work changed forever the field of ornithology and later of zoology itself.
Inevitably one genre or subject or period will ooze across the boundaries to mingle with some relative, close or distant. That is the glory and the beauty of our material and intellectual heritage. Although static, neither stands still. They are individually significant; together they achieve greater clarity and complexity as their qualities bend in dances of regeneration, all writ large on the dance card of this 170-year-young star.