Libraries I Have Loved In London And New Orleans

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The fact it hurt libraries: that was the saddest thing about reading about the controversies musician Irvin Mayfield has been involved in in recent years for my blog post about jazz film Mo Better Blues last week. Some allege that he improperly diverted funds away from libraries and towards his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. I offer no opinion on these allegations, but I do agree with a comment made by the city’s former library foundation president Tania Tetlow in connection with the matter: “There’s a special place in hell for those who steal from libraries.”

I love libraries, and always have done. Near to where I lived as a child, there were two: a little, cosy one like an expanded Wendy house, and a glorious, grown-up big one with, it seemed, more floors and shelves than I could ever fully explore. I spent hours in both.

I’m a regular visitor to several libraries in Hackney, the area of London where I live. I also love scanning the Hackney Libraries website, trying to work out where I have the best chance of scoring whatever popular book I’m trying to locate – currently Ron Chernow’s biography of founding father and monster hit musical inspirer Alexander Hamilton. I’m a passionate rather than reliable user; I’m ashamed to admit that my late return fines over the years of my membership – of which the Hackney Libraries website rather damningly holds a complete record – could fund a good part of an (off-season) flight to New Orleans.

When I get to New Orleans, I love to visit its libraries too. There is the Latter Library in the Garden District, an elegant Italianate mansion shadowed by deep green trees. It’s touched with just the faintest trace of the gothic mood that gently overhangs that part of the city, being a tribute from a Mr and Mrs Harry Latter to their dead son Milton, killed in Okinawa during the Second World War. The building formally became a library on Halloween 1948, and has functioned as one ever since, with brief periods of closure for refurbishment. It has sales too, and a book that I have from one of these always conjures up for me the beautifully sedate, cool place from where I obtained it. By William S. Butler and L. Douglas Keeney, it’s called Secret Messages: Concealment, Codes and Other Types of Ingenious Communication.

The Iron Rail Book Collective, now sadly closed, was quite different, but I liked it just as much. This radical and anarchist library and bookstore was originally based in an arty area on the edge of the French Quarter and then moved to more bohemian Bywater. I’d visit and borrow books whenever I was in town, and they were just the sort of spiky and invigorating stuff you’d expect: writer and activist Deborah “Big Red” Cotton’s Meltdown Town; Marie Etienne’s memoirs Stork Bites and Confessions of a Bi-Polar Mardi Gras Queen.

New Orleans has many more libraries, and they will all be loved by someone. But libraries are in danger from floods, loss of funding, and a multitude of other threats, even violence, in both New Orleans and London as well. Personally, I’m sure there’s a special place in heaven for those who help them.

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