The State Library strives to foster a culture of literacy in Louisiana through its services and programs. The library’s collections supplement those of other libraries by making available difficult-to-obtain items, especially those relating to Louisiana. The Louisiana Collection houses a wealth of information, including historic newspapers, maps and state documents. The Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library coordinates programs that emphasize the value of reading and writing.
The State Library of Louisiana began in 1920 as the Louisiana Library Commission, which strove to improve the state’s low literacy rates by expanding access to libraries and books. The State Library worked to set up public libraries in every parish of the state and achieved this goal in 1969. Since then, the library has shifted its focus to building its own collections that both supplement public libraries’ materials and meet research needs of state government agencies. Today, it offers access to more than eleven million items through its own collection as well as a statewide interlibrary lending network. Additionally, the State Library is home to the Louisiana Center for the Book, which coordinates literary programs including the annual Louisiana Book Festival.
Despite the current era of economic downturn and government downsizing, the State Library remains committed to fostering a culture of literacy and promoting awareness of Louisiana’s rich literary heritage. The library’s collections include rare, expensive or otherwise difficult-to-obtain items; they emphasize works relating to Louisiana.
The Louisiana Collection in the State Library is dedicated to up-to-date information on government, law, travel, history and culture of the state. It features books about Louisiana and by Louisiana authors, newspaper clippings, historic photos, maps, phone books and city directories, genealogical information and state documents. This collection is particularly useful for research done by genealogists, writers, historians and state officials.
The Louisiana Collection prioritizes preserving items of historical and cultural value to the state. One recent undertaking was the Louisiana Gumbo Project, funded by an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Leadership grant awarded for 2004 to 2008. The Gumbo Project digitized historic Louisiana photos and other items from the collections of the State Library, the State Museum, and The Historic New Orleans Collection. A total of 28,000 items were digitized and are now available online through the Louisiana Digital Library.
The collection houses a number of historical photos, including those donated by state agencies and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). WPA files and transcripts, including some from the Federal Writers’ Project, are stored in the collection. The collection also includes artwork significant to Louisiana, including pieces produced by WPA artists. The collection also contains original pages from historic newspapers and magazines, posters, government proclamations and Acts of the Legislature that date to the very first session held in Louisiana.
The Louisiana Collection houses a variety of larger Louisiana city newspapers on microfilm. The oldest newspaper on microfilm in the collection is the Times-Picayune from 1837, the year it was established. A number of newspaper clippings are also on file.
The Louisiana Collection has several maps of cities and water bodies that date from the very old to the very recent. The oldest map in the collection is from the 1690s, although it is a reproduction. Most of the maps newer than the 1820s are originals.
A particularly interesting item in the Louisiana Collection is a book with a bullet hole in it. The book was sent to the State Library by the family of Charles Gray, a Union surgeon who was at the State Capitol during the Union’s occupation of the area during the Civil War. He was sitting outside his tent reading when someone asked him a question. He laid the book against his chest as he answered. Just then, a Confederate sniper shot at him. The bullet went through the book but was stopped from hitting Gray. He later said that his love of reading saved his life.
Many visitors to the State Library’s Louisiana Collection — especially those from out of town — are interested in doing genealogical research. At the library, they can access resources including Ancestry.com and Heritage Quest databases. Historic state documents and city directories also prove useful for such research.
Another avenue through which the State Library promotes Louisiana writers and literature is its book store, Louisiana Bound Booksellers. Opened in 2004, the store is located in the State Library and specializes in books about Louisiana or by Louisiana authors, including fiction, nonfiction and children’s books. Louisiana Bound helps fund future programs sponsored by the nonprofit Louisiana Library Foundation. The store is open by appointment.
Support for literacy and writing is an integral part of preserving both Louisiana’s rich literary heritage as well as its overall culture. The Louisiana Center for the Book, housed in the State Library, helps achieve this as a sponsor of programs that encourage literacy and writing. All 50 states have a state Center for the Book that is affiliated with the national center in the Library of Congress. The center strives to promote reading while celebrating Louisiana’s heritage and underscoring the value of books and libraries. It works to accomplish this mission by developing, sponsoring and coordinating statewide reading and writing enrichment programs for children; by identifying and nurturing the aspirations of Louisiana’s writers, publishers, and others engaged in the creation and promotion of books; and by encouraging Louisianans to read more adventurously and regularly by enabling them to interact with living authors.
In 2000, the center awarded the first Louisiana Writer Award to Ernest Gaines. Since then, this prestigious award has been given regularly to recognize authors whose body of work exemplifies their outstanding contributions to the literary and intellectual life of Louisiana. The center also sponsors the Louisiana Young Readers’ Choice Award, a statewide reading-enrichment program for students in grades 3 – 8, and the Louisiana Teen Readers’ Choice Award. Since 2009, the Louisiana Center for the Book has co-sponsored the state level of the Letters About Literature writing competition.
In keeping with its mission to support literacy and writing, the Louisiana Center for the Book sponsors regularly scheduled author and book programs, such as events for Black History Month in February, which features a related book, and Poetry Month in April. The Poetry Month festivities have recently evolved into a program called “Just Listen to Yourself” moderated by the state poet laureate with readings by poets from around Louisiana.
The Louisiana Center for the Book’s signature program is the Louisiana Book Festival, an annual celebration of readers, writers and their books held in downtown Baton Rouge. This free, world-class festival highlights the latest work of exceptional writers and scholars with an emphasis on Louisiana-related topics. The festival features author presentations on their latest works, literary panel discussions, storytelling, exhibitions, reading- and writing-related activities for children, a book sales and signings tent, live music and food. In 2012, more than 125 writers participated by giving presentations and serving on panel discussions, representing a wide range of literature and scholarship. The Louisiana Book Festival seeks to attract the widest range of reading interests by presenting a wealth of exceptional programs featuring writers of all categories of fiction and nonfiction.
The 2012 festival attracted more than 21,500 attendees in 2012 and injected nearly $1.4 million into the local economy. In 2009, the Southern Review of Books ranked the Louisiana Book Festival as the second-best festival in the world for authors to attend. Despite its growth in recent years, the festival maintains a unique degree of intimacy between authors and readers.