In 1921, the James J. Hill Reference Library’s Board of Directors opened the library to the public. The physical structure was completed in 1916, and the St. Paul Public Library next door had been open since 1917.
Head librarian Joseph Pyle double-downed on acquiring the books he felt were necessary for opening. He and the board also fine-tuned their vision for the library: a “Library of Libraries.” It was their goal to create a collection of books other libraries simply did not have and were unable to order – based on the demand Pyle was already receiving from various scholars for certain books, while still serving the general public with fundamental reference materials.
On December 20, 1921, the doors to the Hill Library officially opened to the public. Attendance exceeded expectations, and it wasn’t just sightseers, “Within an hour after the doors were opened to the public, actual work was being done at the study tables and questions were being answered by the Reference Librarian. From the very beginning the Library was put to use.” High attendance continued into 1922 and it was estimated that 75% of visitors were students and readers, which meant the Hill was fulfilling its purpose.
As attendance grew, so did our book collection. Early on in 1922, Pyle noted that, “Books are still arriving from orders unfilled at the rate of approximately 1000 volumes per month.” Plans began getting made for adding the two-tier stacks to the second story since “at present rate of increase, the available shelf room will soon be exhausted.” Pyle invited in Snead & Company representatives to come and give an estimate. This company had made and installed the 3-tier shelves on the first floor, and it was important to Pyle to rehire them “in order to preserve the beauty and harmony of the building.”
Our first year was, without a doubt, a success. Total attendance for the year was over 8,000 people, averaging approximately 28 people per day—much more than Mr. Hill’s once-predicted eight people a day!
To celebrate the anniversary of the opening on Dec. 20, 1922, the library hours extended into the evening, which proved to be very popular—the library continued staying open until 10:00PM off and on throughout its early years. This necessitated the installation of a lantern outside the front door, which was dutifully ordered at the end of 1922.
Our first year open set a precedent we’re more than happy to fulfill today by providing access to expert business librarians, specialized databases, and a calendar full of professional development and cultural programs. While we no longer hold regular evening hours, our exterior lantern still draws entrepreneurs, researchers, and sightseers to our door during dreary winter days and special evening events.
Written by Ann Mayhew, Reference & Support Specialist, at the James J. Hill Center, and adapted from a blog post by Leah Kodner. If you have more questions about the reference library or our historic collection at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or email@example.com.