St. Louis Mercantile Library Endowed Executive Director John Neal Hoover receives 2024 Jonas Viles Award

by | Jul 2, 2024

The award, established in 2004 and presented annually, is meant to recognize individuals or institutions who have made significant contributions to the preservation of Missouri’s history.
John Neal Hoover standing in his office leaning against a globe

St. Louis Mercantile Library Endowed Executive Director John Neal Hoover received the 2024 Jonas Viles Award from the Friends of the Missouri State Archives. (Photo by Mike Venso)

John Neal Hoover has played an integral role in preserving and sharing the rich history of the St. Louis region and the state of Missouri during his more than four decades at the St. Louis Mercantile Library.

Hoover, who came to the Mercantile in 1984 as the head of special collections and who has spent the past 30 years as its endowed executive director, is credited with helping solidify the future of the oldest cultural institution west of the Mississippi River. He led its move to the campus of the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 1996, helping ensure the protection of its vast collections related to the history of St. Louis, Missouri, westward expansion, the railroads and inland waterways. The move also helped connect those collections with a wider audience, including university students and the public.

For Hoover’s efforts over the past 40 years, the Friends of the Missouri State Archives have seen fit to honor him as the recipient of the 2024 Jonas Viles Award.

The award, established in 2004 and presented annually, is meant to recognize individuals or institutions who have made significant contributions to the preservation of Missouri’s history. It was named in honor of Viles, a University of Missouri history professor who rescued thousands of documents from a fire at the state capitol in February of 1911. Viles entered the building while it was still burning to retrieve documents. He continued his career at the university until 1948, serving as department chair and co-authoring “The University of Missouri: A Centennial History” in 1939.

“I am humbled and filled with gratitude for the life and career I have been given, to have been able to assemble and preserve research collections for the use of students past, present and future,” Hoover said. “The Jonas Viles Award is a tremendous honor for someone like me, who has based his or her work in Missouri’s distinguished archives, and the Mercantile Library’s fine collection here at the University of Missouri–St. Louis is a bright star in that constellation thanks to its long heritage in our community and its fine, dedicated staff, with which I share this recognition.”

Stan Freerks, a member of the Mercantile’s Board of Directors, played a leading role in nominating Hoover for the honor. Freerks, who earned his MBA from UMSL in 1992 and is a longtime supporter of the university, also happens to be a grandnephew of Viles.

“The purpose of the Jonas Viles Award is to recognize those individuals possessing a deep commitment to the preservation and study of Missouri’s history, as well as having a positive impact on the safekeeping, accessibility, scholarship and promotion of the state’s past,” Freerks said in nominating Hoover. “This description perfectly captures John’s long and illustrious career. I believe my great uncle would be proud to bestow this award on him.”

Previous recipients have been recognized for, among other things, discovering historical records, processing extensive collections of records with limited financial resources and placing scans of original documents online.

During Hoover’s long tenure at the Mercantile Library, he is credited with leading the library’s acquisition of approximately 225,000 photographs and 10,000,000 clipping files from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat newspaper after it folded in 1986, thereby preserving important historical documents for future generations.

Through other acquisitions such as the Ruth Ferris collection of photographs, movies, riverboat records, pilot wheels and more, and the John W. Barriger III railroad collection, with its industry records, timetables, travel diaries and letters, Hoover has expanded the Mercantile’s collections related to the river and railroad transportation as well as Missouri business and industry.

Those are in addition to the library’s vast collection of Western Americana, including “The Narrative of the Founding of St. Louis” by August Chouteau and original artwork by early artist explorers, including drawings of the Mississippi River by Seth Eastman and Carl Wimar.

By facilitating the Mercantile’s affiliation with UMSL, Hoover helped the library gain access to technical expertise and facilities needed for large-scale digitization and storage so that researchers around the world can take advantage of its collections.

He has recently finished organizing and inventorying a large trove of historical newspapers from around the country that will be digitized and made available once funding is secured. With this trove, the Mercantile now houses one of the largest depositories of newspapers in the country.

Hoover’s impact also includes helping to train a new generation of museum curators, librarians and archivists. He supports two museum studies graduate students annually, teaching the importance of stewardship of archives, and he recently led fundraising efforts to endow the Scott Early Career Special Collections Librarian position, which is used to hire a new librarian every two years and teach them the skills needed for thriving careers.

“John is himself a treasure, and we all benefit from his commitment to obtaining, maintaining and sharing the St. Louis Mercantile Library’s special collections,” Chancellor Kristin Sobolik said. “I was proud to support his nomination for the Jonas Viles Award, and I am grateful to the Friends of the Missouri State Archives for honoring him and the important work he’s done throughout the past 40 years.”

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik