Quiet Events are footnotes in this difficult year. I have despaired the whole year 2021: the pandemic, violence, climate change, political chaos, Donald Trump, the tragedy of January 6, the erosion of voting rights and with it the decrease in democratic governance in a country that I have known for 77 years – and now comes Christmas.
“Ramsey County History” is the journal of the Ramsey County Historical Society. The fall issue arrived a week ago. Concerned, I put it aside briefly then took note of an article by author Eileen McCormack and despaired even more. The article reminded me that the James J. Hill Reference Library no longer exists. Its collection is dispersed and the building was sold on June 15 to a development company that will hopefully reuse its historic interior for other public purposes.
The Hill Library was one of my favorite spaces from the time my grandfather first took me to see his beautiful reading room in the 1940s until I researched there for a book a few years ago.
Hill Library shared a common wall with St. Paul’s Public Library at Fourth Street and Market Street. One entered the Hill Library through separate exterior doors leading to a registration hall, then turned left through a set of glass patio doors leading to its marble reading room, spanning the entire floor. building length, with floor-to-ceiling books, large study tables, leather upholstered chairs, and decorative reading lamps. I loved this piece and its quiet wisdom.
James J. Hill, at the end of his Great Northern Railway in 1893, reportedly refused a public celebration and urged St. Paul to build a library in its place. The city wanted, and had, its civic celebration, but Hill, undeterred among the richest and most powerful figures of the Golden Age, continued to build and endow the library with his private fortune. Hill died in 1916, five years before the library opened with some 10,000 volumes on its shelves. Public and private donors have enriched the collection.
In 1940, the annual report contained 142,000 books and 960 periodicals. In 1949, when I first saw and was impressed with the place, it contained 154,000 volumes.
It was a reference, not a lending library, and a place for academics to do specialized research, but it welcomed anyone who wanted to come and learn about a particular interest or topic. Several librarians were bilingual and helped translate books and documents. There were private working rooms for researchers and academics to leave their books and papers until their work was completed, however long, even months.
As a repository, it would loan reference books to businesses and other smaller libraries in Minnesota. During WWII it was filled with scientists and engineers working on war projects. It has also hosted exhibitions and exhibitions of rare books and art from its own collection and other museums and libraries. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
A combination of financial problems and changing technologies have doomed the Hill Library. Hill died intestate, leaving no endowment. It was left to Hill’s wife, Mary, and her son, Louis, and other family members to organize the funding for the long-term operation.
Unlike public libraries and college and university libraries, it did not receive any direct tax subsidy to meet its needs. It was a private library. Over the years, he sold part of his collection and refocused on topics related to business and transportation, particularly railways. It has also attempted, unsuccessfully, to expand its search capabilities and dissemination services on the Internet.
As resources dwindled, the library rebranded itself as the James J. Hill Center and opened its doors to weddings and private social events. It closed in 2019, two years before its 100th anniversary.
“Sic transit gloria mundi. “I will miss the place.
John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who has worked for 40 years in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul”. Paul Union Depot. To submit questions or topics to community columnists, email [email protected]