A century ago, the James J. Hill Reference Library was created alongside St. Paul’s Rice Park, offering stacks of books and heaps of business acumen to hopeful businessmen seeking to change the world — or simply make piles of money.
Today, the James J. Hill Center has altered its media — who still cracks open books, after all? — but continues as a business library and resource for modern would-be giants of industry.
Incorporated in 1916 by the daughter and granddaughter of Minnesota’s own railroad and lumber tycoon, the nonprofit center focuses on business, leadership and entrepreneurship. Through free services such as 1 Million Cups St. Paul (think “Shark Tank,” but without the teeth), The Hill, as staff call it, now seeks to transcend the mode of how it assists entrepreneurs in the age of smartphones and iPads, said Barry Gisser, board vice president.
“In the ’30s, during the Great Depression, we were a resource for people looking for jobs. In the late ’40s, it was GIs coming home from the war, looking to start their lives,” Gisser said. “Since the Internet, it has been to support entrepreneurs — by networking, by programming, by services — not necessarily books.”
The work, he said, still is to further the legacy of J.J. Hill. And the library, supported through grants and donations from the public sector, private foundations and its original endowment from 1916, offers its services free of charge.
Every Wednesday, speakers come to the reading room to share their business plan at 1 Million Cups of Coffee St. Paul — and receive feedback from dozens of business people. The feedback is collaborative, thoughtful and friendly, Gisser said.
“It could be a person opening a restaurant on the Green Line, or a mom launching an app to help her nanny track activities,” he said. “As we revisit our mission, we are looking at our niche and what we can provide that nobody else can provide.”
Helping define that niche will be a new executive director, which The Hill is now seeking, Gisser said. It is a pivotal job and an important hire during an exciting time at the iconic library, he said.