Robert E. Smith Library: A Community Spotlight
Robert E. Smith Library opened on Canal Boulevard on April 8, 1956, bearing the name of the man who donated the land for the building. In 1979, it was replaced by a larger building, which would go on to serve the community for the next three decades, until suffering extensive damage during Hurricane Katrina.
The first floor of the building was completely destroyed by flooding. After operating out of a bookmobile parked in front of the building for more than two years, the Library set up shop a few blocks down on Harrison Avenue in 2008.
A year later, the old building was demolished to make way for a new one, which would open in 2012, along with Norman Mayer, Rosa F. Keller, East New Orleans Regional, and Algiers Regional libraries, which were all destroyed in the storm.
Don Jones started working at Smith the day the Lakeview library moved out of the trailer and into its new building.
“I helped get the new building all set up and all the books on the shelves. I’ve watched as it came together from a big, empty building and turn into the Library it is today,” Jones said. “I feel very rooted to this Library. It’s like a second home to me.”
Jones moved to New Orleans from Tampa in 1967 when he was 12 years old and remembers spending evenings at the Main Library.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved books. I love being around them, I love reading them, I love talking about them. So the Library has always been important to me,” he said. “I didn’t start working in a library until I was older, but as soon as I started, it just felt right — to be able to work somewhere where I can always be within reach of a book.”
Aside from the books, Jones said his favorite thing about working at Smith are the people — both staff and patrons.
“I’ve been here a long time and I know a lot of the people that come in, which is something I really love,” he said
One of those patrons is Milt Pressley, who’s been coming to Smith Library at least once every week or two for the past 35 years. He said Jones’ effort to create a welcoming and inviting space has not gone unnoticed.
“Coming here was a bit like “Cheers” or Fraiser’s coffee house. Everybody knew everybody and they were all friendly. They all knew my name, I knew theirs, and we were friends,” Pressley recalled. “Now, most of those people are retired, but Don is still here. And Don will still order or put aside books or DVDs he thinks I’ll like, and he’s usually spot on.”
For example, Jones recently picked out a book for Pressley called “Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany,” which he said he couldn’t put down.
“It was one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. And I probably never would have found it if it weren’t for Don,” Pressley said.
Regular Smith Library patrons might also recognize Rebecca Smith, who has been working there for the past three years. But, her connection to this Library location goes back much further.
“But I always wanted to be at this location, because this is the neighborhood that I grew up in, and I came to this Library all the time as a child,” Smith said.
She’s been working for the New Orleans Public Library since 2009, and was finally transferred to Smith in 2019.
“I was so excited when I found out that I was coming over here, back to my childhood library,” she said. “I still remember the first book I ever checked out. It was a “Bobbsey Twins,” book, and it’s funny because I wasn’t that big of a fan of those books. But, for some reason, that memory really stands out.”
Like Jones, Smith said she loves working at the Library because she gets to help people every day, including patrons like Emmitt Lockard. For the past four years, Lockard has been coming to Smith Library at least three times a week.
“I needed a space to work in that was tranquil and easily accessible. So, I just gave this a try and I’ve been coming here ever since,” Lockard said. “I’ve continued to be so impressed with how welcoming and peaceful it is here, and how helpful the staff are.”
While the Library’s building was closed during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lockard said he found comfort in using the many e-resources, but said nothing could replace being inside.
“I felt immense relief when the buildings reopened and I could come back. It’s one of the first places I went,” he said.
Libraries have always been an important part of Lockard’s life –– from going to his neighborhood’s bookmobile with his mother every week as a kid, to getting to work in the school library instead of going to study hall in middle school, and up to his current love for Smith Library.
“This Library has improved the quality and the direction of my life, and so has the entire Public Library system as a whole. It’s actually a talking point for me when I go to other cities,” he said. “Our culture and food are mentioned all the time, but our community really loves and supports our Libraries and it shows. To me, that is something very special about living here. If you think the Library isn’t important anymore, come see for yourself. After one trip, I guarantee, you’ll change your mind.”
This article is part of the Library’s monthly Location Spotlight series, which highlights the unique stories of the individuals, families, and communities that use each Library location, and the staff that keeps them running. To have your Library story told, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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