Hill’s Library for the “Original Thinker”
Check back each month for the Original Thinker Series as we explore local innovation in entrepreneurship, the arts, and our community one pioneering mind at a time.
It was rumored that Mr. James J. Hill had plans for a new project. For nearly two decades the St. Paul Library Association had been working on a new location for the city’s flagship library. On March 5, 1912 Hill came forward with an offer to fund a “reference library”—one that would be independent of the public system but complement its resources and share the same location between Rice Park and the Mississippi River.
Hill’s announcement sparked an outpouring of public support that ultimately brought both libraries into the light. Interestingly enough, the article in the St. Paul Dispatch from that day includes a note that Hill specifically declined an interview.
What then was Mr. Hill’s intention behind such a project? Why a reference library? Why St. Paul? Thankfully, though he would not comment publicly about it, Hill confided in his friend and biographer (and first Head Librarian) Joseph Gilpin Pyle.
In his authorized biography of the magnate, Pyle writes this about Hill’s motives: “He felt that in the average public library the average reader is well taken care of. The advanced student, the original thinker, the man engaged in investigation and research, the serious author were relatively unprovided with proper tools.”
Hill greatly admired libraries like J.P. Morgan’s in New York and believed it was time for the earnest minds of the North to have one of equal caliber, a place that would “distinguish St. Paul as a centre of learning and art.”
Hill’s vision was so clear that, even after his death in 1916, the first Board of Trustees wrote in the Articles of Incorporation that the purpose of the organization “shall be to maintain, free of charge, for the use of students, scholars and all members of the public engaged in the work of original investigation a research library.”
When Hill describes his ideal patron as an “original thinker” we can only imagine he means someone with a mind like his. Hill was well read in almost all areas of human thought. He saw opportunities where others saw roadblocks. He was not afraid to invest his whole being into his work and, perhaps most significantly, he kept his eyes fixed on the landscape of human progress.
“Mr. Hill always thought in terms of the future,” Pyle writes in an address to the American Library Association, “always visualized it, always worked in harmony with what the prophetic eye revealed to him.” Almost a century since the library opened its doors in 1921 the James J. Hill Center is still serving the original thinkers in our community. In honor of Mr. Hill’s vision, tune in each month for a new series probing the pioneering minds of the North.
Written by Christopher Christenson, Marketing & Events Coordinator, at the James J. Hill Center. Have an idea of a person or organization to feature in this series? Send your recommendations to email@example.com.