The James J. Hill Reference Library is one of downtown St. Paul's architectural marvels. It's a historic institution with an important purpose: the cataloging of business information resources.
Times change. As beer bottles clanked together last Thursday, there was no hushing to be had in the library's grand hall. Instead, a library staffer introduced the night's band, Black Blondie, with words she's probably never spoken before:
"Please get loud at the library!" she yelled.
Here, books have given way to bands and beer. The Hill library opened in 1921 and went on to become one of the country's leading business repositories, with more than 150,000 volumes. But the digitalization of this material has had a huge effect on foot traffic.
"Libraries in general have been completely transformed in the last few years," said library board member Thom Middlebrook. "These are spaces that are crying out to be used. We do a boatload of weddings."
After a decade of steady nuptial business, the library's shepherds have begun exploring new opportunities for the building. In November, the library debuted Real Phonic Radio, monthly concerts featuring American roots bands. That is in addition to the concert series (operating under the name Book It: The Party) that kicked off last week with Black Blondie. And they're just getting warmed up. There is a Valentine's Day dance party on Feb. 14, followed by a "literary speed dating" event on Feb. 22. (Don't worry, people still use the reference materials, too.)
"We need to challenge the idea of what it means to be a library," Middlebrook said.
Night at the library
Every library should have a cheerleader. In St. Paul, there's the Friends of the St. Paul Public Library, the group behind Book It: The Party. The nonprofit Friends group supports the library through grants and fundraising events. I imagined a bunch of nerdy bookworms plotting new ways to keep their clubhouse relevant.
"I think that's a semi-fair assessment," Alayne Hopkins told me. "I'm a geek, and I planned this thing."
When I entered the Book It party last Thursday, a greeter asked me if I had a library card. No, I did not. A library card gets you a free beer, they responded. "Sign me up," I said.
Inside, Hopkins was pacing the floor. As the programming coordinator for the Friends, she was nervous. The crowd was smaller than expected.
Clearly, this is still in the experimental stage. Since 2010, the Friends have hosted three library events under the Book It banner. Each one featured trivia, beer and a DJ in the St. Paul library (next door to James J. Hill).
This year is different. The Friends have two more concerts planned for this series (Chastity Brown Band on Feb. 23 and We Became Actors on March 8). Real Phonic Radio's next show at the library is headlined by blues star Charlie Parr on March 15.
Each of these parties takes place in the Hill's Reading Room, which features stacks outlined by giant stone columns supporting 60-foot ceilings. Dramatic lighting abounds.
The neoclassical architecture wasn't lost on those who attended the Book It party.
"I spend all my time in new school libraries," said Allison Eikenberry, a librarian from Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights. "They're boring. This is fancy."
The evening started with a round of trivia hosted by Jeff Kamin of Books & Bars. Eikenberry headed up the night's winning team, Captains of Industry. She had assembled a crew of like-minded librarians. They've cleaned up on trivia nights before.
"We win a lot," said Emily Hope, a librarian at Chippewa Middle School in Shoreview.
Good books, good sound
Black Blondie keyboard player Tasha Baron didn't know what to expect from this library gig. She said her mother tried to give her an idea.
"My mom kept saying to me, 'You can't even talk in there -- you have to whisper -- and you guys are going to be playing music and people are going to be drinking beer?'" Baron said.
Backed by a cascading wall of books, Black Blondie took to the stage and filled the huge room with its smoky, trip-hop sounds. I thought the cavernous room might create a terrible echo, but the books provide a soft cushion, absorbing the reverb. Black Blondie's soulful arsenal -- a mix of hard drums, keys and a stand-up bass -- sounded great.
After wrapping up their one-hour set, the band's lead singer, Samahra Daly, thanked the crowd and then plugged their next gig, which was taking place a few hours later in Minneapolis. Yep, it was only 9:15 p.m., but the night was over at James J. Hill. I imagine drinking into the wee hours at a library listed on the National Register of Historic Places would just seem uncouth.
Before I left, I took a long look at the statue of a bearded James J. Hill by the library's entrance. I asked Hopkins (the night's organizer) if she thought the old Empire Builder would approve of music and booze in his library.
"The part of James J. Hill that was an entrepreneur would applaud what we're doing," she said. "The rest of him might be rolling in his grave."
I wonder how he'd feel about a name change, too. "Reference library" just doesn't cover everything anymore.
How about the James J. Hill Party Center?
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