Earlier this month I attended for the first time the St. Louis Fine Print, Rare Book & Paper Arts Fair. We have exhibited there for all 8 years of its existence, but it was always my partner, Don Cresswell, who attended. This year it made more sense for me to go, which I was pleased about as I had never really spent any time in St. Louis.
It was even more of a pleasant visit than I anticipated, though, for I was totally blown away by the venerable St. Louis Mercantile Library. This is one of the many private libraries (such as the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Cincinnati Mercantile Library) founded in order to provide a library to the community in the era before public libraries were established.
The St. Louis Mercantile Library was founded in 1846 and it is the oldest library west of the Mississippi. It was originally established to be a subscription library "where young men could pass their evenings agreeably and profitably, and thus be protected from the temptations to folly that ever beset unguarded youth in large towns."
The Mercantile Library has moved several times-—it is now housed at the University of Missouri-St. Louis—-and its purpose has changed over the years as well. Today it’s purpose is to serve as a community cultural asset, as a research library, and a repository of its impressive collection which its makes available to local and national users.
The collections concentrate on Western Expansion and the history, development, and growth of the St. Louis region and of the American rail and river transportation experiences, and they encompass a wide variety of objects including rare books, manuscripts, paintings, sculptures, newspapers, drawings, and of course, maps and prints.
To have such a great research resource is terrific, but a visit to the library itself is a real experience. The library is on the lower floors of the university library and the rooms are simply packed with not only shelves and shelves of books, but sculpture, models, paintings, maps, and prints hung in, it seems, every nook and cranny.
My visit for the fair was my first opportunity to visit and I didn’t have nearly enough time, but I wandered about looking at familiar and unfamiliar items with a huge grin on my face. Anyone interested in the Western Expansion would be well served to use this resource, but anyone visiting St. Louis should make it a point to stop by and experience what is, in effect, a twenty-first century version of the enlightenment's cabinets of curiosity.