NOLA 300: City archives tell New Orleans’ story

NEW ORLEANS -- The Main Library of the New Orleans Public Library holds hundreds of years of history in its basement.

"This building is actually five floors--three above ground, two below," says Christina Bryant, head of the Louisiana Division/City Archives & Special Collections of the New Orleans Public Library. "We keep our archives primarily in the second basement. But, we do have some materials in the first basement."

(For those of of you that hear "basement" in New Orleans and are immediately worried about the archives' safety, Bryant says the basements have never flooded and are protected by a French drain that keeps water out.)

The archives span hundreds of years of the city's history. When historians write books about old New Orleans, they often get their facts from the books, maps, and photos in the library's archives.

"An archive is a place where primary resource materials are kept," explains Bryant. "We make them available for people. We provide access through organization and creating inventories, and creating what we call 'finding aides,' and basically keep them so that people can use them as research material or find out about the history of the city."

Even though the archive is in the library, it doesn't exactly work like the rest of the library.

"The library--you can walk in and check out a book and take it home with you," says Bryant. "You can not walk in and check out anything that we have in our collection. It all stays here."

Most of the items in the archive are one-of-a-kinds, like one of its oldest items: a 1769 record book of meetings held in the Cabildo. The Cabildo was the government headquarters for the Spanish when they were in control of New Orleans.

"Prior to being here at the library, this would have been held at City Hall," says Bryant. "The archives became a part of the public library in 1946. The city passed an ordinance to make that happen."

Bryant says the archive includes about 30,000 linear feet of records. The library's role to make sure those records are available for everyone who needs them.

"One thing that I am excited about that we do is make these accessible," says Bryant. "That's our job: to make sure people can find it, that people can come in, that they are comfortable coming in, and that we can really help them look for these materials."

Tonight (October 16) and next Tuesday (October 23), the Louisiana Division/City Archives & Special Collections staff will show off some of the collection and discuss the history of the archive at the Louisiana Division in the Main Library from 5:30 p.m. till 7 p.m. Attendance is limited. RSVP to 504-596-2610.