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Celebrating 125 Years of the New Orleans Public Library

On January 18, 1897, the New Orleans Public Library opened its doors for the first time. Previously called the Fisk Free and Public Library, the institution was located inside St. Patrick’s Hall on Lafayette Square with a collection of over 35,000 volumes. 

Fast forward to 2022. The New Orleans Public Library now operates a 15-location system with a collection of more than 466,000 items and enriches the community with access to free services and resources that its founders could likely have never imagined. As we celebrate our 125th anniversary, we’re looking back to those origins to remember how we got where we are today and inspire us for many more years to come. 

The Library’s earliest history goes back to November 27, 1843. On that day, a wealthy merchant named Abijah Fisk wrote a will that left his house at the corner of Customhouse (now Iberville) and Bourbon Streets to the City of New Orleans, “on condition that it shall be applied to the keeping of a library for the use and benefit of the citizens of said city, and to be used for no other purpose.” 

Two years later, Abijah’s brother, Alvarez Fisk, purchased a large collection of books for the Customhouse Street home, intending to carry out his brother’s wishes. However, he and other library supporters were unable to secure support from the City. 

In 1852, Alvarez Fisk approved a City request to allow the Mechanic’s Society to house the Fisk Collection inside their building on Philla Street (now University Place). Later that year, the library finally opened, with a collection of books valued around $10,000. The success, however, was short-lived. A mere two years later, a fire engulfed the Mechanic’s Institute’s building, destroying all of its contents, including the Fisk Collection.  

The structure was rebuilt and new books purchased; and, for the next 27 years, the Mechanic’s Institute operated the library. Then, in 1881, the University of Louisiana bought the building and unofficially assumed responsibility for the collection. The next year, the City gave the institution permission to administer the Fisk Library, along with its own collection. 

In 1883, the University of Louisiana became Tulane University. Twelve years later, the university requested to move the Fisk Collection to its new campus on St. Charles Avenue. Instead, the mayor, John Fitzpatrick, asked City Council to merge Fisk Library and the City Library –– a collection at City Hall designed for New Orleans public school students’ use -–– in order to create one public library system for the city. He proposed the new library move into St. Patrick’s Hall, the vacant building formerly home to Criminal District Court. 

City Council approved the measure in 1896 and early the next year, the New Orleans Public Library was born. 

Over the course of the next few years, two major donations helped solidify the Library’s success as an institution. In 1898, tobacco manufacturer Simon Hernsheim’s heirs offered to donate $50,000 to the Library in their father’s name. The funds purchased $10,000 of badly needed new books and the remaining money was invested, allowing the Library to use interest from the Hernsheim Fund for future collection purchases. 

At the end of 1902, the Library received another generous donation –– a $250,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie to build a new Main Library and three satellite branches. The money came at the perfect time, as the federal government was planning to buy St. Patrick’s Hall and convert it into a new post office.  

On October 15, 1908, Main Library opened inside its new home, located at the now-named Égalité Circle. Main Library occupied the neoclassical building for the next 50 years, before moving to its current location on Loyola Avenue in 1958. The building was demolished just two years later. 

Three other Library locations opened within the same year, thanks to the Carnegie Grant: Royal, Algiers, and Napoleon Libraries. Of these, two are still in operation today. Algiers is now Cita Dennis Hubbell Library in Algiers Point. Uptown’s Napoleon Library is the Children’s Resource Center Library. Royal Street Library closed in 1965 due to damage from Hurricane Betsy. 

In 1911, the Library expanded yet again. The Canal Library brought the system’s reach to Mid-City, where a new Carnegie library was built near the intersection of Canal and Gayoso streets. 

Three years later, NOPL completed its last Carnegie Library, while simultaneously marking another milestone with the creation of its first library for Black New Orleanians. Dryades Library opened in Central City on October 23, 1913, more than 16 years after the city’s public library system was first established. 

It would remain the New Orleans only library to serve Black patrons until Branch Nine opened in the 7th Ward 30 years later, shortly before the Library system officially desegregated. 

Dryades was the last of the five satellite Libraries built in the first two decades of the New Orleans Public Library’s 125-year history. Over the course of the next ten, many more would open and close, as the Library faced moments of hardship and bounty. Throughout it all, NOPL has remained dedicated to transforming lives, enriching neighborhoods, and preserving history.  

We hope you join us as we celebrate 125 years of doing just that. 

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