UMSL holds gala to celebrate St. Louis Mercantile Library’s 175th anniversary

by | Apr 11, 2022

The event celebrated the institution's history and featured a speech by Chancellor Kristin Sobolik and music by distinguished pianist Cynthia Johnson.
Chancellor Kristin Sobolik presents a plaque

Chancellor Kristin Sobolik (left) welcomed community members and UMSL alumni such as Terry (center) and Stan Freerks to the Mercantile Library 175th Anniversary Gala Dinner Saturday. The event celebrated the venerable institution’s past, present and future and featured a speech by Sobolik, music by distinguished pianist Cynthia Johnson and a served dinner. (Photos by Phil Shoulberg)

The St. Louis Mercantile Library first opened its doors in April 1846 and has operated continuously since that time, making it the nation’s oldest, ongoing library west of the Mississippi River.

In honor of the beginning of its 176th year of continuous service to the St. Louis community, the University of Missouri–St. Louis welcomed community members – many dressed to the nines in black tie attire – to the E. Desmond and Mary Ann Lee Theater at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center Saturday evening for the Mercantile Library 175th Anniversary Gala Dinner.

Blanche M. Touhill and several men in tuxedos

Chancellor Emerita Blanche M. Touhill (center right) and husband Joe (center left) enjoy the festivities.

The event celebrated the venerable institution’s past, present and future and featured a speech by UMSL Chancellor Kristin Sobolik, music by distinguished pianist Cynthia Johnson and a sumptuous served dinner.

Additionally, all attendees received one complimentary copy of the forthcoming publication “Seventeen and a Half Decades Serving St. Louis and the World: An Informal History of the Mercantile Library, Decade by Productive Decade” by Mercantile Library Executive Director John Neal Hoover.

In her address, Sobolik recounted the Mercantile Library’s history and how it has informed the present and where the institution will go in the future.

Two men in tuxedos and top hats

Some attendees go above and beyond the black tie-optional dress code and wear period 19th-century outfits.

She noted the library promoted social justice and democracy at every turn during the tumultuous days of the Civil War, serving as a model for every other liberal arts institution that has since been established in the region. During the Gilded Age, its members came together to protect a growing resource of rare books, manuscripts and art.

By the time of Mercantile Library’s centennial, its collections had become a multifaceted reflection of the history of St. Louis and the nation. It began supporting other cultural institutions by sharing those collections.

“The art it nurtured from the beginning was starting to rewrite an overall appreciation of American art history,” Sobolik said. “The library’s Americana collections were never more widely used as scholars from across the nation came to study the holdings to help recapture the past in the revisionist studies written in their own day.”

In 1996, the Mercantile Library took a transformative step, moving from its downtown St. Louis location to the Thomas Jefferson Library at UMSL.

People seated at tables in the Lee Theater listening to a speaker

Attendees enjoy a served dinner while listening to the evening’s speakers.

“This move would ensure that the library could expand its reach and give greater access to its collection for residents not only in the region but far beyond,” Sobolik said. “Our university community is exceedingly proud to have now shared in this extraordinary partnership for more than twenty-five years and counting.”

Sobolik added that the two institutions have never been better aligned to move forward to meet the needs of the region. To that end, she announced that the university secured funding for a major renovation of the University Libraries. Plans for the project include dedicated meeting spaces for Mercantile Library events and exhibition and gallery spaces.

The chancellor closed her remarks with a look ahead to a new chapter being written by the Mercantile Library and UMSL.

“Today, on this auspicious occasion, I now predict that the Mercantile will remain at the cultural epicenter of this community,” Sobolik said. “It will continue to be innovative in building lasting collections. It will be a beacon of heritage and a preserver of the past for the future in its museum and in its rare book collections, more than ever. The Mercantile’s home at the University of Missouri-St. Louis will grow alongside it and give it the nurturing protection this library needs to build a lasting and continuing future legacy as new educational opportunities unfold to make its resources available long into the future for generations to come.”


Learn more about the Mercantile Library’s history:

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Burk Krohe

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