Chapter 1: How New Orleans got a public library
In 1843, when New Orleans was 125 years old, Abijah Fisk, a wealthy merchant, left his French Quarter house at Bourbon and Customhouse (now Iberville) streets to the city with the provision that it be made into a library “for the use and benefit of citizens of said city, and to be used for no other purpose.” Fisk’s collection, augmented with books from the bibliophile Benjamin Franklin French, was later housed at the Mechanic’s Institute, where the Roosevelt Hotel now stands, and opened to the public in 1852.
New Orleans has a citywide network of 17 public libraries, including the Nora Navra branch, which is being rebuilt after sustaining extensive flood damage during Hurricane Katrina. Of special interest to researchers is the Louisiana Division at the Main Branch, 219 Loyola Ave., which has a wealth of resources in categories such as the Mississippi River, official state documents, Mardi Gras, maps and newspapers. It also houses the City Archives, which dates to 1769.
- The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) loved to endow libraries all over the country. In 1902, he gave $250,000 (slightly more than $7 million today) to New Orleans for a main branch at Lee Circle and three other branches: the Royal Street Library, the Algiers Point Library (now the Cita Dennis Hubbell Library) and the Napoleon Library (now the Children’s Resource Center Library).
- The library at Lee Circle, a handsome Beaux Arts structure, was demolished when the Main Branch moved to a modern headquarters at Tulane and Loyola avenues in 1958. K&B Plaza occupies the site. The Royal Street Library was razed after being severely damaged during Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Christopher Inn Apartments, housing for the elderly operated by the Archdiocese, was erected on the site.
- Behind the main desk at the Main Branch is a large historical mural of New Orleans by the longtime New Orleans cartoonist John Chase.
- Before moving to Lee Circle in 1908, the library was housed in St. Patrick’s Hall on Lafayette Square, a building that had been occupied by Criminal District Court.
- The city’s libraries were segregated until 1954, when the library board, under the leadership of Rosa Keller, integrated all the branches. The library where Napoleon Avenue meets South Broad Street is named for her.
- Before the branches were integrated, the only libraries available to African-Americans were the Dryades Library in Central City and a library known as Branch 9, which operated in two converted Army huts in the 7th Ward.
- The Milton H. Latter Library was opened in 1948. It is named for an Army lieutenant who was killed on Okinawa on April 27, 1945. It is housed in a mansion at 5120 St. Charles Ave. that was built in 1907 and bought by Latter’s parents, Harry and Anna Latter, to be transformed into a library to honor their son. They never lived there.
- A previous occupant of the house was Marguerite Clark, a silent-movie star who had married Harry Williams, an aviator, in 1918. In an interview, Clark said she gave up her career to move to New Orleans because “I knew enough to go home when the party was over and the guests were gone.” Williams was killed in a plane crash in 1936, and Clark moved to New York three years later to live with her sister. She died in 1940.
- Scandal touched the city’s library system in 2015, when WWL-TV reported that federal authorities were investigating an allegation that Irvin Mayfield, a Grammy-winning trumpeter, steered more than $1.1 million from the New Orleans Public Library Foundation, which supports the library system, to the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra while holding leadership posts in both organizations. He has since resigned from the foundation and the orchestra. The inquiry is continuing.
New Orleans prides itself as a literary town, and for more than 170 years, libraries have been a vital part of that, offering oases where people can be exposed to all sorts of information, in books and online, as well as programs of community interest. Hurricane Katrina hit the library system hard, but it has rebuilt. New Orleanians showed in 2015 how much they value their libraries when they approved a 25-year, 2.5-mill supplemental tax to provide revenue for the system.