Magazine article American Libraries

Librarians' Lagniappe: The Historic New Orleans Collection

Magazine article American Libraries

Librarians' Lagniappe: The Historic New Orleans Collection

Article excerpt

A happy hybrid of library and museum, the Historic New Orleans Collection serves up primary sources with Big Easy grace.

Lagniappe--giving patrons a little something extra--was a long-standing custom among New Orleans merchants, and befitting of a city proud of its Old World gentility. It's equally befitting, then, that a special collection dedicated to preserving that historical record offer its users some cultural lagniappe: ambiance and a sense of place. A treasure in itself, the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC) serves up all that and more.

Literally embodying the life and times of the Big Easy, the HNOC is housed in a charming French Quarter complex whose Royal Street entrance brings visitors inside the Merieult House, one of the few buildings to survive the city's devastating 1794 fire. Within the seven-building complex is the 2,028-square-foot, post-World War II residence of the collection's late founders, General L. Kemper Williams and his wife Leila Moore Williams. Their home is now an elegant, eclectic house museum showcasing the Williams's antique European furniture and Chinese porcelains.

The city's rich past is echoed throughout the complex. Beneath a cottage recently acquired for staff workspace, an archaeological dig revealed the first primary evidence of a circa 1730 French royal barracks described in period maps. Pottery fragments found during installation of an elevator to the director's office at another HNOC facility intimate the presence of a silversmith shop in the 1750s. And atop the late-19th-century building that now houses HNOC's Manuscripts Division is the site of the since-demolished garret in which Tennessee Williams (no relation to HNOC's founders) wrote Vieux Carre (old square).

The work of the HNOC is just as impressive as its physical surroundings. Founded in 1966 according to the terms of Leila Moore Williams's will, the core collection consisted of treasures she and her husband had acquired, such as primary-source documents about the Battle of New Orleans, Louisiana's first constitution, and maps depicting the city's early growth. General Williams, whose will complemented the wishes expressed in his wife's, spent his remaining years ensuring that the couple's French Quarter properties "be maintained and operated as a museum housing the collection ... and made available and kept open for the public to observe, study, and enjoy."

"In touch with evidence"

HNOC staffers have more than fulfilled that legacy. "Not unlike the Huntington or the Folger libraries," Director Jon Kukla enthuses, "we've taken a gentleman's library and expanded it into a research facility." Since General Williams's death, the HNOC's holdings have swelled to some 24,000 books and pamphlets, 300,000 images, 5,700 linear feet of manuscripts and documents, and hundreds of three-dimensional objects that attract more than 6,000 visitors a year. "If research is putting scholars in touch with evidence, we've got it," Kukla boasts.

Describing the collection as "more than a library, more than a museum," Kukla takes a special pride in its diversity and accessibility. "Within a matter of minutes, off-the-street researchers can have their hands on primary-source materials," Kukla asserts.

Among the treasures so readily available to the public are a complete run of the Double Dealer, a New Orleans literary magazine from the 1920s that published the works of such luminaries as Sherwood Anderson, Ben Hecht, Amy Lowell, and Ezra Pound; the papers of Pierre Clement de Laussat (1756-1835), a French colonial prefect who was the last official to administer Louisiana for a foreign power; the pre-Civil War lithographs of Jules Lion, a free man of color; hundreds of Mardi Gras items, dating back to the mid-1800s and ranging from float designs to costumes and sealed krewe papers; and the William Russell Collection, believed by, Kukla to be the "largest and most important jazz collection in the world. …

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