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Libraries Helping Libraries: Curating Our First Collection

In 1915, the James J. Hill Reference Library’s first head librarian Joseph Pyle began the task of selecting and collecting the books that would one day grace the library’s shelves, working in consultation with James J. Hill. When Hill passed away in 1916, this job was wholly incomplete, and Pyle now faced this duty with little more than very preliminary lists and Hill’s vision: to be a specialized reference library. Not only that, but Pyle wasn’t even a librarian! He was a trusted friend and colleague of Hill’s, his speechwriter and first biographer.  

How did Pyle approach this immense task? With strategy, dedication, networking, and lots of hard work. He relied heavily on other libraries and the experts who worked there.  

Before he could buy books, Pyle had to buy (and read!) books about books: bibliographies. He scoured bibliographic works such as “Standard Books,” “The English Catalogue of Books for Great Britain and Ireland,” and “United States Catalogue and Cumulative Book Index,” many of which were updated and re-published regularly, and publishers’ catalogs. He traveled across the country, from Chicago to New York to Boston and beyond, to visit with reference librarians, scholars, and other experts, all of whom were happy to collaborate and help.   

He looked closely at other libraries’ catalogues and bibliographies, including the St. Paul and Minneapolis Public Libraries, Library of Congress, the libraries at Harvard and Princeton universities, the Peabody Institute Library, the John W. Crerar Library, and the Newberry Library, among many, many more. He even went to very specialized libraries, such as those operated by The Societies of Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Electric Engineering, in New York City. He received a list of nearly 700 titles on architecture from Electus Litchfield, the building’s architect. 

Pyle was particularly infatuated with the British Museum. He quotes heavily from the “List of Books Forming the Reference Library in the Reading Room of the British Museum” in letters to the Hill Reference Library’s board of directors. “There cannot be any library in any English-speaking country that could more closely approximate to the dream and the hope of Mr. James J. Hill,” Pyle writes in 1917. “[Our] collection will, therefore, be rather closely modeled on the British Museum Reference Library, which is undoubtedly the choicest selective reference library in the world.” (It is, unfortunately, not noted to what extend this dream was realized.) 

To narrow down his lists, Pyle meticulously went through and made decisions on what to purchase and what to cut based on the contents of the book, budget, and what the St. Paul Library next door already had in their collection—minimizing duplication was important to him. 

We still collaborate today with the public, private, and specialized libraries in our community. By working with community partners, we’re able to recognize and fill in gaps in the entrepreneurial and business research community—whether through our database subscriptions or class offerings—and, on the flip side, know where and to whom to refer patrons who need a service we don’t offer.

 


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 hillreferencelibrary@jjhill.org.

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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.

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