This exhibit celebrates the Library's centennial by focusing not on the events that led to the Library's birth but on the development of the services that it has offered through the years to the citizens of New Orleans. But we should begin by setting the stage. What were the events that led to the passage of an ordinance on April 15, 1896 formally establishing "a great free library" for the City of New Orleans?

The New Orleans Public Library traces its origins to an act of generosity by a New Orleans citizen--the first of many such acts, large and small, that have helped it to grow and prosper over the years. On November 27, 1843, a wealthy merchant named Abijah Fisk wrote a will, leaving 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." Abijah Fisk's gift was the first step down a winding and sometimes rocky road that led fifty-three years later to the creation of the New Orleans Public Library.

In 1847, two years after the death of Abijah Fisk, his brother Alvarez Fisk purchased a substantial collection of books from bibliophile Benjamin Franklin French and placed them in the house on Customhouse Street with the intention of carrying out his brother's wishes. Initially, however, he and others who joined in his effort were unable to secure adequate support from the City, split at that time into three separate municipalities, each with its own governmental structure.

It was not until 1852, after the city's municipalities had been consolidated into a single political body, that the opportunity arose to take advantage of the Fisk brothers' generosity. In that year, city officials decided, with Alvarez Fisk's approval, to allow the Mechanic's Society, founded to support the "Mechanics, Manufacturers and Artists of the City and suburbs of New Orleans," to house the Fisk collection. The books were moved into the Society's new building on Philippa Street (now University Place), and the library finally opened to the public with a collection of books valued at some $10,000. Two years later, however, a catastrophic fire destroyed the Mechanic's Institute building and its contents, including the collection gathered by Alvarez Fisk and B. F. French. The structure was rebuilt, and new books were purchased, but the fortunes of the Mechanic's Society, and with it those of the Fisk Library, declined over the next quarter century.

In 1881, the Library got a new lease on life when the Mechanic's Institute building was purchased by the University of Louisiana, which also unofficially assumed responsibility for the collection of books that remained in the building. The next year, satisfied with the University's custodianship of the collection, the City agreed formally to allow the University of Louisiana (renamed Tulane University in 1883) to administer the Fisk Library along with its own collection of books.

While the Fisk Collection was moving from place to place, a second library was also growing. In 1844, the Second Municipality Council of New Orleans established a library for the use of students in its public schools. Eventually housed in City Hall, this collection of books was originally known as the Lyceum and Library Society and, after 1873, came to be called the "City Library." This library, however, was not "free"; those who wished to use it were required to pay a small subscription fee for that priviledge.

In 1895, Tulane University asked the City for permission to move the Fisk Collection to its new campus on St. Charles Avenue. Instead, however, Mayor John Fitzpatrick proposed that the City Council merge the Fisk Library and the City Library in order to create a free public library to be housed in St. Patrick's Hall on Lafayette Square, recently vacated by Criminal District Court. On April 15, 1896, the Council accepted Fitzpatrick's plan and passed Ordinance No.12,217 CS, "establishing a public library in the City of New Orleans, and providing for the management of same." And the "Fisk Free and Public Library," to be known within a few years simply as "New Orleans Public Library," was born.

Two additional events which contributed immeasurably to the success of the City's new venture also deserve mention. In 1898, the heirs of tobacco manufacturer Simon Hernsheim offered to donate $50,000 to the new library in their father's memory. After some delay, the City accepted this generous donation in 1902. The Hernsheim gift allowed the fledgling institution to make an immediate purchase of $10,000 worth of badly needed new books. The remaining money was invested and, in years to come, the interest from the Hernsheim Fund allowed the Library to continue to enhance its book collection.

At the close of 1902, the Library received another magnificent gift--a grant of $250,000 from Andrew Carnegie to be used to build a new Main Library and three branches. The Carnegie grant came just at the right time, for rumors were circulating that the federal government planned to buy St. Patrick's Hall as the site for a new post office. By 1905, when those rumors proved true, plans for the Carnegie funded Main Library were already underway. In 1906, the Library relocated temporarily to quarters in a private home at 1115 Prytania Street and, in 1908, moved into the beautiful new building at Lee Circle, its home for the next fifty years. By 1908, three branches, Royal, Algiers, and Napoleon, were also open and serving the public. Additional Carnegie grants in coming years financed an annex to the Main Library and two more branches, Canal and Dryades.

The Library's earliest history, then, actually stretches back more than 100 years, to that day in 1843 when Abijah Fisk wrote his will and started the chain of events that led to the official creation in 1896 of a free public library for the citizens of New Orleans. Any number of obstacles along the way could have broken that chain, but, as it happened, there was no irreparable break. The New Orleans Public Library was born, and for a century, has dedicated itself to the service of the patrons who enter its doors. The administrators and staff of New Orleans Public Library are proud of this achievement and invite all of you whom we have served over the years to join with us in celebrating our past and our future--which, like everything within our walls, also belongs to you.

St. Patrick's Hall, photographed through the trees of Lafayette Square by Alexander Allison sometime between 1905 and 1910.

This news story about the awarding of the first Carnegie grant appeared in The Times-Democrat on January 1, 1903.

Abijah Fisk, the "father" of New Orleans Public Library. [Courtesy of Kenneth T. Urquhart]

Minutes of the Library's first Board of Directors meeting.

The second Mechanic's Institute (later called Tulane Hall) in University Place, home to the Fisk Collection until 1897.

The text of the ordinance that formally established the New Orleans Public Library on April 15, 1896.

Mayor John Fitzpatrick's message to the City Council proposing to merge the Fisk Library and the City Library.

A bookplate designed by Sadie Irvine for use in books purchased with funds from the Hernsheim donation.