Innovations on the Shelves
The bookshelves in the James J. Hill Center are more than mere places on which to rest historic volumes. They tell a story which reflects the Hill’s vision of supporting innovation. Original to the building, our copper-toned shelves were designed and built by Snead & Company, a cast-iron that adapted with the times and “built a better bookshelf.”
Around the turn of the 19th century, public libraries were becoming increasingly popular, largely due to grants distributed by Andrew Carnegie. At this time, most libraries used wooden, fixed bookshelves. Snead & Co. recognized that these shelves were inadequate for these new, large libraries. They applied their metalwork expertise to design and patent innovative metal shelving that included features such as customizable shelf heights; a standardized length to introduce interchangeable parts; and more evenly distributed lighting. The goal of these shelves was both practicality and affordability, along with options for a fancy detailing.
Snead shelving took off—their shelves can be found in the Sterling Law Library at Yale University, the Vatican Library in Rome, the New York Public Library, and the Library of Congress, among many others.
Another feature of early Snead Standard Shelves is that they were load-bearing, yet another way Snead saved libraries money. Such is the case with the Hill shelves. More so than the grand columns gracing the Reading Room, our bookshelves are vital as structural reinforcements, holding the building up.
Of course, Snead & Co. never anticipated the ways this feature may cause problems in the future, as libraries today adapt to then-unbelievable electronic technology—the New York Public Library recently wanted to remove some shelves to create a larger services-oriented space, but were unable to do it due to the structural necessity of the shelves! Here at the Hill, we don’t quite have the same problem since our large Reading Room affords us lots of space for events.
Snead & Co. recognized a need in their community as public libraries grew in both size and popularity, and stepped up with innovative products for that market—forever changing the world of library shelving and, in turn, libraries themselves.
Written by Ann Mayhew, Reference & Support Specialist, at the James J. Hill Center. If you have more questions about the reference library our our historic collection at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or [email protected].