LSU’s Unlikely Librarian: William Tecumseh Sherman
Office of the President’s Records, RG A001
William T. Sherman to David F. Boyd, 20 May 1873
David F. Boyd Family Papers, William T. Sherman Letters, Mss. 40m
The Seminary of Learning of the State of Louisiana opened January 2, 1860, near the central Louisiana town of Pineville, with five professors and 19 cadets under Superintendent William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman arrived in Louisiana in 1859 and began making preparations for the school’s opening, including acquiring books for the library. During the summer break in 1860, he visited New York and purchased about 400 volumes–mostly history–from bookseller D. Van Nostrand. He paid $500 on the account and instructed that about half of the volumes be rebound, half-sheep, and backed.
When Louisiana seceded in January 1861, Sherman left the Seminary and enlisted in the Union Army, but the school remained in his thoughts during and after the war. He ordered that it be spared during General Nathaniel Banks’ operations in the area in 1863. Nevertheless, between local jayhawkers, Confederates using the facilities for a hospital, Federals temporarily occupying the grounds, and both armies’ activities in the area during the Red River Campaign of 1864, the buildings, including the library, were stripped of their contents by the end of the war. When the school reopened in 1865, Sherman used his considerable influence to recover some of the books and equipment lost while the building was in Union hands, and the state legislature authorized the transfer of duplicates from the State Library. By 1869, the library boasted 7000 volumes.
That collection proved short-lived, however. The entire Seminary was destroyed by fire on October 15, 1869. Again Sherman helped to replenish the library, donating books and maps from his personal collection and looking for additional sources of books in Washington, though he was not always a discriminating selector. In the 1873 letter shown here, he writes Superintendent David Boyd, “I have a bag of books sent from the Congress, which I have not even opened — and I have ordered it sent to you. If of little value they will help to fill your shelves.”
The History of Hill Memorial Library
LSU Photograph Collection, RG A5000
Interior of Reading Room, Hill Memorial Library, 1903-1904
LSU Photograph Collection, RG A5000
Fifteen days after the 1869 fire, the school, now called Louisiana State University, reopened in part of the State Institution for the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind in Baton Rouge. With Sherman’s help, in 1886 the university received title to the abandoned U.S. Army Arsenal, and operations moved to that complex, which included the Pentagon Barracks and several other buildings located where the current state capitol stands.
The campus physical plant grew steadily. One of the most significant new buildings was the Hill Memorial Library. Around 1900, the Scottish-born sugar planter, industrialist, and Board of Supervisors Member John Hill donated the funds for a building in memory of his son, John Hill, Jr., who had graduated from LSU in 1873 and also served on the board from graduation until his death in 1893.
When the current campus opened in 1926, the name “Hill Memorial Library” was retained. Hill served the campus until Middleton Library opened in 1959. Between then and the mid-1980s, the building housed various academic and administrative departments. After extensive renovations, it reopened in 1985 as the home of Special Collections, bringing together the Libraries’ published and manuscript holdings on Louisiana and the Lower Mississippi Valley, university records, and rare book collections that, until then, had been physically and administratively separate.
The Long Path to Public Libraries
Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Ephemera Collection, Mss. 1148
Postcard of Alexandria Belles & Public Library, 1910
Louisiana Postcard Collection
Interest in some form of public libraries in Louisiana dates to the state’s colonial period when the Spanish planned to open schools, which would contain libraries of books furnished by the government. Those facilities did not come to fruition, but soon after the Louisiana Purchase, Governor William C.C. Claiborne enacted legislation that similarly linked establishing libraries in schools. He also signed an act to incorporate the New Orleans Library Society. The Society soon opened a subscription library, but it lost its collection after a fire in 1810. As the early nineteenth century progressed, state funding for these efforts to establish “public” libraries proved unreliable, and in 1830 the holdings of the New Orleans Library Society were sold to pay its creditors.
Leading citizens believed, however, that a city of New Orleans’ cultural and economic significance required that it have a public library. By 1846, New Orleans boasted four libraries that were accessible to the public, though not necessarily funded from the public purse. These included the private library of historian B.F. French, the relatively new State Library (which Secretary of State and State Librarian Charles Gayarré hoped to make a great library to rival those in the East), the Young Men’s Free Library Association, and the Public School Library and Lyceum Society of Municipality No. 2, a notice for which is displayed here. Founded in December 1844, the Library and Lyceum Society was headquartered in the Second Municipal Hall on St. Charles St., in the “American” part of the city. Subscribers paid $5 per year, and $9 bought a life membership for public school students. Their teachers could use the library at no charge. By 1857, it boasted 10,000 volumes.
Publicly accessible or publicly funded libraries of the antebellum era were primarily centered in New Orleans or found at colleges and academies. The material damage and financial constraints brought about by the Civil War and Reconstruction stymied library efforts, and it wasn’t until the early twentieth century that a true public library system came to Louisiana, particularly in the state’s rural areas. Essae Culver, a librarian and educator from California, spearheaded the movement, opening demonstration libraries around the state through a grant of $50,000 from the Carnegie Corporation.
The Alexandria Public Library, shown in the postcard to the left, provides an excellent example of this sequence of events. Funded by a $10,000 Carnegie grant, the facility opened in 1907, replacing the library burned in 1864 by U.S. troops during the Red River Campaign.
Books for “Our Boys”
Beth Skoog Root Papers, Mss. 5007
Between 1939 and 1946, over 500,000 troops received basic and artillery training at Camp Claiborne in Rapides Parish, La. Originally created in 1930 and expanded 1939-1940 in anticipation of the U.S. entering World War II, Camp Claiborne was activated in 1940 and played a major role in the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1940 and 1941, the largest mass training operations undertaken by the U.S. Army to that date. Among the soldiers to receive their training there was the 34th Infantry Division, the first American unit sent to the European theater.
The complex at Camp Claiborne included a gym, theater, hospital, and library, the latter headed by librarian Beth Skoog.