The Mercantile Library: A Hidden Cincinnati Gem

Located on the 11th floor of The Mercantile Library Building in the heart of Downtown Cincinnati, The Mercantile Library is one of the Queen City’s most hidden libraries. So hidden, in fact, that most locals who have lived in the city for years have never visited it, let alone even know it exists.

With an impressive book collection of over 80,000 volumes, a nearly 200-year history, and a beautifully decorated interior filled with large windows and ivory busts, The Mercantile Library is rich with culture and practically begs you to come in, sit down, and curl up with a good book.

Whether you’re looking for a unique place to explore, a spot to enjoy some peace and quiet, or a welcoming environment where you can embrace your inner bookworm, this library offers the perfect place to do so.

In this post, we share a brief history of the library along with a quick visual tour and a guide to its current programs, membership options, and list of current events.

A Brief History of The Mercantile Library

In the early 1800s, Cincinnati was emerging as a major commercial hub. With its convenient location along the Ohio River, it served as a natural midpoint for freights traveling west. As a budding city, a group of 45 young merchants felt that their could be tremendous value in setting up a place to meet, exchange information, and share intellectual resources.

Inspired by subscription libraries that had already seen success along the east coast like The Library Company of Philadelphia founded by Ben Franklin, the young group of merchants decided to start their own membership library in 1835 on the second floor of a firehouse with just $1,800 and 700 books. 

An early president’s report captured the mood of the early founders:

We are young men. We are banded together for self-improvement. Very limited, for the most part, have been our educational advantages, yet we believe in an enlightened age—in a land of liberty—the sun of knowledge, in its meridian splendor, is beaming down upon us. The World, itself, is waking up, and shaking off the lethargy of ages. Shall we be sluggards? Nay, but let us grasp at every means of self-improvement within our reach; let us read, think, act, in the living present …”

The library saw its membership surge in the early years, but a devastating fire in 1845 wiped out the building. Fortunately, members of the library were able to pool together $10,000 to rebuild the library on the 11th floor of its present site, 414 Walnut Street. 

As the years passed, the library grew. It accumulated thousands of additional books, collected various works of art, and hosted a variety of speakers and authors including Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The Mercantile Building, 1907. Photo Source.

The Mercantile Library quickly became a literary, cultural, and intellectual center of its region.

The annual meeting, 1913. Photo Source.

Today, after nearly 200 years of existence, the library continues to serve as a place where information can spread through writers and speakers, where debates can inspire conversation, and where students, authors, readers, and creatives alike are all invited to use the library as a place to connect, work, and grow.

A Quick Tour of the Library

You can access the library by taking the express elevator on the first floor of The Mercantile Library Building directly to the 11th floor.

Note: Although you have to pay to be a member, it’s completely free to visit the library.

Upon entering, you’re greeted by Silence, a marble statue of a woman holding her index finger to her lips. It’s a copy of a statue that a library member saw in Paris and was acquired in 1856.

The library has an open floor layout with a variety of chairs, tables, and stools scattered throughout that invite you to sit and stay a while.

Bookshelves line the walls and the large glass windows on all sides of the library provide plenty of natural lighting.

As you walk through the library, be sure to admire the artwork along the walls and the ivory busts scattered throughout the rooms, which add to the rich history of the library.

A spiral staircase in the corner of the library lined with past library presidents leads to the 12th floor lecture room, where various events are hosted throughout the year.

Membership, Programs, and Current Events

To gain borrowing privileges and discounts on library programs, you must become a member. Currently individual memberships start at $55/year and household memberships start at $90/year. You can check out membership options here.

The library hosts a variety of guest lectures, discussion groups, literary evenings, book clubs, courses, and other programs throughout the year. Check out all of their programs here.

For a list of upcoming events, be sure to check out The Mercantile Library online calendar.

For information about parking, library hours, and contact information, check out the library’s Visitor Information Page.

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