Benton: The First Bossier Parish Library, September 1940
In 1925, the American Libraries Association selected Louisiana, out of twelve competing states, to be the recipient of a $50,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation to establish rural public libraries. The Louisiana Library Commission then selected Miss Essae (pronounced “Essay”) Culver, a 42-year-old librarian who had fallen in love with library work as a student at California’s Pomona College and who’d helped establish libraries in Oregon and California, to begin the project in Louisiana. She decided to work with a northern parish and a southern parish in which to establish a library system, Ouachita and Jefferson Davis. It wasn’t long after those first two projects before she set her sights on Bossier Parish, holding “mass meetings” across Bossier in 1928 to support the founding of a library system.
These meetings were arranged by the local library committee under Mr. J.E. Williams, of Benton, the executive secretary, who was also Bossier Parish Supervisor of Schools. Mrs. S. C. Barr, president of the Bossie Parish PTA, “made a forceful address” at one of these meetings, as did Mrs. Volney V. Whitington of Benton and other “very enthusiastic” people, as reported by the Bossier Banner-Progress on December 13, 1928. Well-practiced speaker Miss Culver held the “undivided attention of her hearers,” and the local social pages noted that Miss Culver also had a local dinner invitation while in the area, enjoying a turkey dinner at the “Wendt home,” likely the home of J.R. Wendt, parish engineer, who lived in Benton with his family as neighbors of the Bossier Banner office.
With Louisiana recovering from the great flood of 1927 and the nation entering the Great Depression in 1929, creation of public library systems stalled. In the meantime, Miss Culver encouraged the formation of readers’ clubs in the parish, for which the state library commission could supply books. However, it was a Depression-era government program that also helped the library project come to fruition. In 1940, the Bossier Parish Police Jury approved the formation of a parish library system on a “demonstration” basis, to be funded by the State Library of Louisiana for one year with the Work Projects Administration (WPA) providing several assistant librarians and custodians.
A New Deal agency, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), renamed the Work Projects Administration in 1939, employed 8.5 million people between 1935 and 1943. One initiative of the WPA was to sponsor nationwide, state-level library demonstration projects to encourage the development of library services to underserved populations and to extend rural service while simultaneously providing temporary work for the unemployed.
The Louisiana Library Commission supplied the demonstration library books. In an agreement between Bossier Parish and the State Library, the state also provided a bookmobile and other equipment, while a parish tax was used to maintain and expand library services. A headline in the local Planters Press newspaper from August 22, 1940 announced, “Library Books Reach Benton on Wednesday.” The article mentioned that the work of remodeling the old Post Office building for the library was going forward and the fixtures would soon be completed. It also said that once the books were arranged, the library would be ready to open to the public.
Located in the parish seat and serving as the Bossier Parish Library headquarters, the Benton library was the very first of the Bossier Parish libraries to open, on Friday, Sept 20, 1940. The library opened in Benton’s 1910 post office building, one of the oldest buildings in town. The opening was marked by a program featuring Miss Essae Culver and Mr. J. O. Modisette, an attorney who was chair of the state library commission. Elisabeth Williams, who came, along with the initial set of library books, from a demonstration library in Arcadia in Bienville Parish, served as Bossier Parish librarian from 1940 until her retirement in 1967. Because it was considered library “headquarters,” she worked from the Benton library.
The November 7, 1940, issue of the Planters Press noted that since the opening of the Parish’s four libraries that year (in Bossier City, Benton, Haughton and Plain Dealing) and having a book mobile on the road, 5,705 books circulated and 1,493 people registered as library users. At the end of that first demonstration year, the Police Jury approved the library on a permanent basis with the passage of a one-half millage sustaining tax in June of 1941, which was approved by Bossier Parish voters. By the end of 1944, the Benton Branch had circulated 5,885 books for a full year, and, along with the new branch located within the school in Elm Grove, had a perfect circulation record; all of the circulating books were accounted for.
In 1959, the Benton library moved from its original building to more modern (and air conditioned!) quarters on the corner of Sibley and Sixth Streets, just half a block away. This location proved to be too small when library usage increased in the late 1980s, so the building was renovated and expanded in 1987 to provide a dedicated children’s area, magazine display shelves, and a casual reading area. The current Benton Branch building was constructed and opened in 2006, just down the street from the Bossier Parish Courthouse.
The Bossier Parish Libraries no longer has a bookmobile, but we now have six branch libraries plus the Central Library and History Center complex. We also have an outreach service for homebound patrons. To see us in person, please visit the History Center at 2206 Beckett St, Bossier City, LA and are open M-Th 9-8, Fri 9-6, and Sat 9-5. Our phone number is (318) 746-7717 and our email is history-center@bossierlibrary. For other fun facts, photos, and videos, be sure to follow us @BPLHistoryCenter on FB, @bplhistorycenter on TikTok, and check out our blog http://bpl-hc.blogspot.com/.
- 1950s. State Librarian Essae M. Culver showing Audubon prints that are part of the Louisiana State Library collection. Photo: State Library of Louisiana Bossier Parish Library in Benton, LA, 1941.
- Bossier Parish Library, Headquarters/Benton Branch with Louisiana Library Commission Bookmobile. Sign donated by the Coca Cola Company. May, 1941. Photo: State Library of Louisiana
- Entrance to Bossier Parish Libraries Benton branch c.1966. Bossier Parish Libraries History Center photo.
Article by: Pam Carlisle