Ode to a Library

In 1835, forty-five young, white men wanted to better themselves. They were not professionals, they were clerks to professionals and merchants.

The men knew they could improve themselves more quickly and to a greater degree if they did it together. Their solution was to found a library, the Young Men’s Mercantile Library Association.

The original location of the library, above a firehouse, burned to the ground. The library needed to relocate. There was a potential location in the heart of downtown. A developer sought to build on the property but didn’t have sufficient capital.

But The Mercantile Library did.

The developer and library discussed a possible deal for the building that was being designed in 1903 and would be completed in 1908. The library would provide the funds, the developer would provide a lease for space.

The library wisely asked an attorney to assist with the contract. The attorney was not allowed to be a member of the library because he was a professional, but his son, William Howard Taft was a member. The son asked the father, Alfonso Taft, to write the contract.

Were it not for the senior Taft’s foresight, there would be no Mercantile Library today. I would not be sitting at this long, wide, thick wooden table. There would be no background murmur from the orientation for new members. John, Hillary, Chris, Cedric, Amy and the rest of the staff would not work here.

There were four insightful and significant terms to the contract Alfonso Taft wrote. The first two made using the library more convenient and pleasant for members. The last two saved the library.

Taft’s terms:

  1. The library would occupy the top two floors of the building. This would increase daylight and, in the days when windows were opened, reduce smells.
  2. The library would have two elevators for its exclusive use, one for members and one for freight. These express elevators would serve the 11th and 12th floors only.
  3. The library would lend the developer $10,000 (equivalent to about $300,000 today) for the construction of the building. For this loan, the developer would give the library a lease. The lease was not for ten years or even a hundred years, but for ten thousand years. The payment due on the lease would be $1 a year for ten thousand years. Thanks to this clause, the library survived the Great Depression.
  4. The lease agreement was not with the developer or the building but with the physical address of the ground on which the building would sit. The library has been taken to court four times as someone sought to break the lease. One of those times the plaintiff was the City of Cincinnati. The city wanted to build a new courthouse on the property, but the city lost the case and The Mercantile Library is still here.

It’s a beautiful building. I’m guessing the ceilings are twenty feet tall. I could live under the arched windows.

The Mercantile Library, Cincinnati Ohio, reading room

It costs $45 a year to join the library. As the library director said to the new members this morning, “If you take out three books instead of buying them, you’ve just repaid your membership.”

The library has two slogans:

Welcoming Nerds since 1835

You Belong Here

It’s fun to watch new members explore the library. They are very careful, almost reverent. I get it. I’m still reverent but less reserved.

I belong here.

If you want to visit the library, a fun day to come is November 5th. That’s Alfonso Taft’s birthday and the library throws a party.


When I put that beautiful photograph of Anna Suomi in last week’s post, I didn’t know who to credit for the photograph. Now I do. Here’s the same Anna, different photo, same photographer: Mia Järvisalo.

Anna Suomi

Chewing the Cud of Good

Close up of the stage curtain from The Lion King

Thankful for friends and the fun things we do together.

PS: Shhh…

Jule Kucera making a shhh pose just like the statue in the Mercantile Library

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