Collection Curiosities: Book Sets

Among the many interesting items one finds when combing the shelves of the James J. Hill Center’s library collection are several dozen book sets. Included are biographies; histories of places and events; personal papers of presidents, diplomats, explorers and businessmen; and government records. Publication dates reach as far back as the early 1800s (some before the birth of Mr. Hill himself).

The oldest? Sparks’s American Biography, a ten volume set originally published in 1834. It set out to include, according to its editor, “all persons, who have been distinguished in America, from the date of its first discovery to the present time,” with the hope that it “would embrace a perfect history of our country.” Though the more familiar faces of this early period of American history are absent, it sheds light on others who were believed important at the time. Beginning with John Stark, an American officer in the Revolutionary War, it tells of other early war heroes as well as physicians, inventors, engineers, and even a little-known signer of the Declaration of Independence. These individuals represent some of the most notable figures of the 18th and early 19th century, many whose lives began nearly three hundred years ago or more, and, perhaps, were those whom Mr. Hill might have admired or even emulated.

Written by Alex Ingham, Business Librarian, James J. Hill Center. 
If you have more questions about the reference library at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or hillreferencelibrary@jjhill.org.

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The Evolution of Embossers

Of the many changes that our library has seen over the past century, one that is easy to overlook is the way we mark our books. When we first opened, our librarians embossed each new book they added to the collection. Labels on the embossing stamps show we were still embossing books into the early 1970’s. Sometime thereafter, we began instead to mark our books using ink stamps.

We recently uncovered several of our old embossing stamps, and our librarians are going to start using them again. There are several benefits to embossing as opposed to ink stamping. Firstly, inks can negatively affect paper, making it degrade over time, whereas embossing only adds an indent or small holes to the paper and therefore does not cause as much long-term damage.

Secondly, embossed books are harder to steal than books stamped with ink, because the skilled thief can laboriously remove traces of ink, but the only way to remove traces of embossing is to remove the embossed page itself. And finally, aesthetics. Embossed books look and feel nice. There is a timeless feel to them, something that brings to mind classic libraries with beautiful old books. In addition, an embossed stamp looks the same every time, whereas ink stamps often appear messy.

For all these reasons and in deference to our history, we are going to bring our embossing stamps out of retirement. Stop by sometime to see some of our new materials, embossed as of old!

The story of these tools and the epic building will be further explored in the Cabinet of Curiosity Tour every third Thursday at 10:30AM. Go back in time in this one hour tour, up and down the catwalks and through the vault in a nooks and crannies inspired experience.  Our June tour sold out, so get your tickets early!

The oldest embosser, which creates a raised impression of our corporate seal.

The corporate seal created by the oldest embosser.

The newest embosser (really a perforating stamp), with a 1971 note instructing librarians to stamp the page after the title page of a book.

The perforated stamp.

The ink stamp currently used by librarians, which marks the date as well as the name of the library.

Ink stamps create a less aesthetically pleasing stamp than embossers or perforators.

Written by Leah Kodner, James J. Hill Business Librarian. If you have more questions about the reference library at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or hillreferencelibrary@jjhill.org.

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Cabinets of Curiosity

With some recent archival projects on our plate an article from MPR News caught the attention of Lindsey Dyer our Director of Library Services. “File this under nostalgia: New book pays tribute to the library card catalog shares information about a new book from the Library of Congress entitled,  “The Card Catalog: Books, Cards and Literary Treasures.”  It celebrates catalogs “as the analog ancestor of the search engine.” Library of Congress author, Peter Deveraux, states that “There’s tens of millions of cards here.  It’s a city block long.” This was a very timely article considering some of the historic catalog items we recently found here at the James J. Hill Center.  Lindsey recently took some time to dig up and share a few iconic treats from the vault.

Lindsey: Card catalogs are indeed “cabinets of curiosities” as are the ways we have kept track of information over time. Librarians worked tirelessly to create calm in the chaos of information, cutting and pasting any relevant facts and tid-bits. Take these snapshots in time from the 1980s – gems of nostalgia for Gen Xers and older millennials. What research paper would be complete without the help of the card catalog?

At the Hill, business librarians had a special task of identifying and capturing industry trends – like how Nike is taking over the sneaker industry, or the rise in fax machine sales. While the methods have certainly changed (we aren’t cutting out and taping facts to cards, though I have to admit that sounds cathartic), we still aim to find the best industry information there is, combing databases (paid and free), and translating that information.

We have been, and always will be, an entrepreneur’s best resource!

Visit the James J. Hill Center and it’s reference library Monday through Thursday 10AM to 5PM and check out all of the current resources.  Also, ask one of our business librarians for some assistance with a database and see what gems of knowledge you can find to build you business success.


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Reference Transformation & Relevance

We can’t officially wrap up National Library Week without reflecting on the week’s theme of transformation, and what that means to reference libraries like ours at the Hill Center.

When the value of a cultural institution is in question, it’s really the relevance of the institution that’s at stake. For reference libraries many times their relevance is translated into the number of visitors, number of clicks, and number of positive survey results – but even with this data, the impression of relevance can often times be missed. In order to truly understand relevancy, we need to understand our impact on a case-by-case basis and this is often times qualitative.  We need to ask questions like – have we transformed to meet the real needs of our community? Are we providing an inclusive space to think differently, share ideas and take risks? These questions are hard to measure but at the Hill Center we have begun to see the results.

James J. Hill has played a pivotal role in introducing me to the start-up culture. From presenting at 1 Million Cups and attending its many thought-leader panels, I have richly benefited from the proactive resources and seemingly infinite networking opportunities”  Entrepreneur

“The fact that I have this resource available to me, both the facility and research staff, is an absolute relief.”
Business Owner

According to IBISWorld, the Library industry forecasts a slow and steady growth in the next five years – whereas the online database and print book industries are forecasting a decline. This tells us that the nature of the traditional reference library is already transforming into new arenas. At the Hill, this means that beyond offering key business information, we don’t just rely on what we have – we rely on who we know – and what we can do.

At the Hill Center, we meet our community at every point in their entrepreneurial journey. Whether you’re thinking about starting a business or find yourself needing data to branch out into a new market – we have the “secret sauce” that will get you to the next level. What’s the recipe? We like to think our people make all the difference.

Being relevant isn’t just about having relevant information – it’s about having a welcoming space for ideas to fly. The Hill Center creates a space for meaningful engagement in our business community – and it shows. Come to a 1 Million Cups presentation on a Wednesday morning, and you will see the space transformed into a conduit for idea and talent sharing, and just sometimes that right connection to take your idea to the next level.

What I appreciate most about the Hill Center, is the continued commitment from staff to uphold the entrepreneurial spirit of our “founding father,” James J. Hill. The original entrepreneur, Hill didn’t take hard work for granted, and neither do we. We’re here to make that hard work a little easier for you, forging a path that will make a difference – and hard work is always relevant.

“Work, hard work, intelligent work, and then more work.” – James J. Hill

Composed by Lindsey Dyer, Director of Library Services, James J. Hill Center. 
It you have more questions about the Reference Library at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or hillreferencelibrary@jjhill.org.

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The Great Northern

Last Friday we wrapped up Twin Cities Start Up Week in Minnesota.  It was truly inspirational to see all the interest and support for the empowerment of our economic ecosystem.  We decided it was important to give a nod to our entrepreneurial legacy, James J. Hill.

Entrepreneurs have been around since the start of time.  Think about it, at some point someone got sick of eating raw meat and thought, “I wonder what would happen if I rubbed two sticks together,” and poof – there was fire.  It probably wasn’t as simple as that but it is important to realize that these visionaries change our culture and economy.  People who have a dream, a passion and the motivation to stick it out can change history.  That is exactly what Mr. Hill did in the 19th century with his realization of the Great Northern Railway.

This railway was the only privately funded and successfully constructed transcontinental railroad in the history of the United States. Running from Saint Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington it was the dream and passion of James J. Hill that made it happen.  His savvy business sense, smart partnerships, and innovative ways of engaging the public gave him the title of Empire Builder.  He used one of the first public relation campaigns to create interest and support in the railroad. Using contests to incentives he engaged the public on how the future of the railroad would not only shape their economic prosperity but changed the method of how people traveled. His vision put St. Paul, Minnesota on the map.

The Great Northern Railway is only one of the many amazing contributions that Mr. Hill gave to his community and our country. The James J. Hill Center is another perfect example of his forward thinking ability. His idea to build a location that was a meeting place of resource and learning is still celebrated today.

On November 11, 2016 we will once again be tipping our hats and toasting our legacy at our annual Great Northern Evening.  Join us to celebrate the legacy of Mr. James J. Hill and to support the economic empowerment of our local entrepreneurs.  Be a part of the Legacy and JOIN US on November 11th from 7pm to 10pm!

A Great Northern Evening – Tickets on Sale Now

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Remembering James J. Hill 100 years after his death

By Business Reference Librarian Leah Kodner

This week at the James J. Hill Center, we commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the death of our namesake. James Jerome Hill. Hill died on May 29, 1916. His obituary, printed in the New York Times, reads:

“In his room, in the southeast corner on the second floor of the brownstone house, overlooking the city to which he came sixty years ago as a clerk, the end came. His age, 77 years, was a handicap in combating the hemorrhoidal infection, which dates from May 17.

At the bedside were the children, hastily summoned from homes throughout the nation…Grief, showing plainly in the faces of all…was most poignant in the face of the son, Louis, who will take up the generalship of the interests his father built and husbanded.

All traffic on Hill roads and all boats on the Hill lines will be stopped for five minutes, from 2 P.M. until 2:05 P.M., Wednesday, in tribute to the dead.”

Read the full text of his obituary.

In order to properly commemorate the death of our founder, the librarians at the James J. Hill Center have compiled a small exhibit in our entrance lobby, to remain in place through June 2nd. Included are a memorial medallion and a memorial book.

The memorial medallion, distributed to members of the Great Northern Veteran’s Association by the office of Hill’s son Louis W. Hill, comes in a black case lined in purple fabric. It bears Hill’s likeness on the front and his dates of birth and death on the back, followed by the inscription “one of the world’s greatest builders.”

The memorial book is one of many released in the aftermath of Hill’s death by a variety of organizations with whom Hill had worked. These books were gifted to the family and to various members of the community. This particular memorial book was created by the Association of Commerce of Saint Paul, better known today as the Saint Paul Chamber of

Commerce. In flowery language, the book describes Hill’s contributions to the transportation industry, agricultural development, and the city of Saint Paul.

Though we have not commissioned any medallions or books, the staff of the James J. Hill Center nevertheless wishes to commemorate the death of the man who made our library possible. Stop by the James J. Hill Center through June 2nd to see our Hill memorial exhibit for yourself.

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Then and Now: Hill Throughout History

By Barry Gisser, Hill Board Vice Chair

“The highest conception of a nation is that of a trustee for posterity. The savage is content with wresting from nature the simple necessities of life. But the modern idea of duty is conservation of the old and modeling of the new to the end that posterity may have a fairer dwelling place and thus transmit the onward impulse.”

While modern sensibilities might make some cringe at a few of his word choices, James J. Hill’s wisdom is not lost in regards to the government’s role in bettering the state (lower case s, not capital S). This time his words are taken from a meeting of the Minnesota Conservation and Agricultural Congress back in 1910.

Today, though, I am going to plead guilty of “savage” behavior and ask for a little more focus on the simple necessities of life. This isn’t about early childhood development, wage gaps, or even Walleye limits or the evils of plastic bags. This is something much closer to home: the $600 invoice I just paid to put a new wheel on my car after I drove through a pothole the size of Mille Lacs (actual pothole photo below).


If we struggle with the basics of public service how can we even begin engaging in the bigger questions of posterity that Hill believes should be our focus? Is it better now than it was in 1910? Your guess is as good as mine, because as usual I don’t have answers. Maybe I’ll figure something out as I shop for groceries using my government-approved shopping bag.

Some of the historical headlines look different and some may look familiar but even now the James J. Hill Center is here to help business by delivering its non-profit mission of Supporting Business, Entrepreneurs, and Community. Learn more at www.jjhill.org.

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Then and Now: Hill Throughout History

By Barry Gisser, James J. Hill Center board member

Over the weekend I read in one of our excellent local newspapers that legislators and Governor Dayton are planning a big party next year to celebrate the grand re-opening of the renovated State Capitol building. The Capitol was originally designed by architect Cass Gilbert and constructed in 1905 but is now going through a multimillion-dollar reconstruction. I figured my favorite subject would have something to say about any building completed in that period and, as usual, I was not let down.

It was March 31, 1909 and James J. Hill was on hand to give the keynote address at the unveiling of a statue of the late Colonel William Colvill. One quick aside for those of you (like me) who have no idea who Colvill was. He led the First Regiment of Minnesota Volunteers at Gettysburg and then later became Minnesota Attorney General. Seems statue worthy in my book.

Photo courtesy San Diego Union Tribune/Associated Press

“We have met to-day to honor the memory of one of our country’s modest heroes, to commemorate the deeds of his gallant comrades in arms, to recall once more that great occasion which gave to him and those who fought side by side with him, enduring fame. A nation or a state is at its best upon occasions such as this. The strife of party and of persons ceases. Selfish interests stand aside. The patriot whose name this memorial bears was one of those direct and simple men who rise so often to the level of great acts.”

I will not venture a guess as to what Hill would have thought about the $310 million renovation price tag or the $400K set aside to “celebrate and party like it’s 1905” (thanks Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City). Let’s just hope that when the Capitol does re-open next year there is time set aside to remember some of the greats of Minnesota history.

Some of the historical headlines look different and some may look familiar, but the James J. Hill Center is here to help business by delivering its non-profit mission of Supporting Business, Entrepreneurs, and Community. Learn more at www.jjhill.org.

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Then and Now: Hill Throughout History

By Barry Gisser, James J. Hill Center Board Member

Federal Reserve policy sure has been in the news lately. Doves and Hawks and pundits of all species try to glean the truth from each and every word uttered by Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen with regard to what the U.S. central banker might do to set the country’s monetary policy. One of the biggest levers the central bank has is its ability to sell or redeem government securities, like bonds, and that helps set direction for many things down the line in which we use debt to live. . . from a car loan to a leveraged buyout of a company that makes ketchup!  I had an inkling James J. Hill would have some thoughts on how tightly anyone (including our central bank) should manage the purse strings and sure enough, I found a “hint” in Hill’s address to the Investment Bankers Association of America Convention of 1913.

hill april 4

Photo courtesy Oregon History Project

“Always  in any properly financed undertaking, the limit of a bond issue is the total cash value of tangible property in possession; not its value for the uses to which it is being or is to be put, but its value as an asset for immediate conversion by forced sale at any time into cash. Under this rule the investor might rest secure. The worst that could happen to him would be to have to take over this property, in case of receivership, wind up the business and get back his money.”

On one hand, not a surprise from someone who had a lot of cash on hand. But for someone who believed so deeply in the ability of the hard working individual’s ability to make something of himself (sorry it was not also herself) it seems a bit of a surprise that Hill wasn’t more sensitive to the role of debt in building something big. Who knows, maybe he just wanted to send a “special” message to the investment bankers of the day.

Some of the historical headlines look different and some may look familiar, but the James J. Hill Center is here to help business by delivering its non-profit mission of Supporting Business, Entrepreneurs, and Community. Learn more at www.jjhill.org.


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A Devoted Architect

By Leah Kodner, Business Reference Librarian

The James J. Hill Center officially opened to the public on December 20, 1921. Construction had begun in 1913 and planning in 1911. From the beginning, New York architect Electus D. Litchfield was involved, drawing up the plans for Hill’s library and the adjoining St. Paul Public Library. At Hill’s request, Litchfield based his plans off those of J.P. Morgan’s New York library, and his designs spared no ornate detail. It would be expected that after 10 years of work, Litchfield would be thrilled at the library’s triumphant completion and eager for the opportunity to move on to other projects.

Interestingly enough, this was not the case. Though Litchfield did move on to other projects, his interest was piqued by his time working on the Hill Library. In a letter to librarian Helen K. Starr in 1937, Litchfield wrote, “I have built some ten or eleven libraries and I had felt that when I built the libraries in St. Paul, I was on my way to designing many others. But…I have never had another library to design.” Perhaps it was this disappointment at never designing another library that caused Litchfield to maintain both his interest in developments at the Hill Library and also his frequent contact with the various head librarians over the years.

Continuing to Provide Guidance

Throughout the decades that followed the opening of the library, Litchfield maintained avid correspondence with the first head librarian, Joseph G. Pyle and his successor, Helen K. Starr. His input was instrumental in the continual evolution of the building, and he was happy to offer his (usually solicited) advice on a number of issues.


Letter from Electus Litchfield to Joseph G. Pyle, June 20, 1929

In this 1929 letter, Litchfield responded to an earlier letter of Pyle’s asking for advice on the addition of new bookshelves on several floors of the library to accommodate the still-growing collection. Not only did Litchfield provide his own opinion on the matter, but he went so far as to consult one of the engineers at his architecture firm to ensure that he was giving sound advice. This was typical of the thoughtful and constructive advice which he gave to Pyle and later to Starr.

Long-Lasting Friendship

In 1930, when Helen K. Starr succeeded Pyle as head librarian, she and Litchfield began what would become an active and friendly correspondence over the remainder of their careers. Over the years, the two exchanged photographs of the library, discussed proposed changes and improvements, and enjoyed several reunions in New York and St. Paul.


Letter from Electus Litchfield to Helen K. Starr, October 30, 1935

This 1935 letter from Litchfield to Starr is a part of a long string of letters discussing a line of radiators that had been in the center of the Reading Room. Litchfield had considered the radiators an eyesore and a temporary necessity and felt that, had Hill lived, he would have approved of upgrading to a more discreet heating system. Earlier in 1935, in order to more comfortably accommodate the increased crowds who flocked to the library during the Great Depression, air conditioning had been installed in the building, and with it, an updated and more discreet heating system. Litchfield was pleased with the fact that his building was one of the first in the country to have central air conditioning and was even more pleased that the “eyesore” radiators had been removed. Now he could focus his attention on other issues, like the arrangement of the tables within the Reading Room. Starr’s letters to Litchfield show how much she appreciated his advice and guidance. She often took his suggestions when it was possible to do so, and if she did not she explained her reasoning. In this manner, they conversed for many years.

Electus D. Litchfield had many successes in his long career as an architect, but it is clear that The Hill held a special place in his heart. Though he was never given the opportunity to build another library, he was able to maintain a personal and professional relationship with The Hill and to continue to strive for perfection. If you have not seen Litchfield’s masterpiece in person, come pay us a visit. It is well worth a look.

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We are pleased to announce the completion of our elevator renovation at the James J. Hill Center. This project was financed in part with funds provided by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the Minnesota Historical Society and the F. R. Bigelow Foundation. It will greatly increase our ability to serve patrons with accessibility needs.

Please access our ground floor elevator entrance via Kellogg Ave at the back of the building. Please ring the doorbell on the right hand side of door and a Hill staff member will assist you. If you have questions or concerns please call 651.265.5500. We look forward to having you visit our brand new elevator!