New Orleans Public Library is much more than a provider of books for patrons to take away to read at home. It is also a source for information on a seemingly infinite range of topics, from religion to science, from art to zoology. Every branch in the NOPL system has its own collection of general reference books such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, directories, and the like. The larger branches, and, to an even greater extent, the subject divisions at the Main Library, also provide access to many specialized reference volumes and sets. Indeed, the Louisiana Division is entirely a reference collection; all of its millions of items are always available for use in the Library.

But reference books are only a part of the story, for a trained and experienced reference staff is essential to the efficient flow of accurate information from the Library to its patrons. Over the years NOPL staff members have developed collections, indexes, fact finders, and other tools--not to mention institutional memories--all of which are designed to facilitate their ability to answer reference questions. We are now beginning to use the largely uncharted but immensely powerful Internet to supplement our in-house resources and talent.

The New Orleans Public Library does not measure its success solely by the number of books lent for home use. This photograph of the reading room in the Lee Circle library captures a typical day of in-house use of the Library.

This view inside the Lee Circle building, ca. 1943, catches several groups of library patrons making use of NOPL's reference services. Visible in the left-hand portion of the photograph is the full-length statue of Benjamin Franklin that graced the building for many years. The sculpture now resides at the Benjamin Franklin Senior High School building on the University of New Orleans campus.

Patrons waiting for reference assistance at the Lee Circle building's Information Desk.

Typical users of reference facilities are business men checking financial manuals and directories, printers, artists, architects securing pictures, data and illustrations, salesmen planning campaigns, obtaining suggestions for window displays, Carnival organizations planning balls, floats, costumes, authors and journalists verifying facts, seeking historical information, advertisers planning radio programs, lawyers obtaining records or materials for legal use, exporters consulting cable codes and government publications on tariffs, commerce and many subjects. These represent only a few types of users; of course there are many high school and college students as well as many club men and women using reference facilities to help solve their individual problems, some of which are: collecting debate material, arranging a club program, preparing a speech, obtaining information on current events, writing term papers, etc. [Annual Report, 1937, p 10]

The Royal branch service desk, shown here ca. 1913; the librarians are presiding over a full house of reference users.

In an attempt to offset the loss in circulation of technical books--those for the mechanic, the ship-fitter, the welder--which was noted throughout the system, "a technology alcove" was set up in the large circular end of the Reference Room. Here on one side were placed reference titles, on the other those for circulation, so that any specific call might be conveniently met through the use of both collections.... This Public Library, like those in industrial areas throughout the country, has helped teach many a new trade to many a worker, and war-time emphasis on technical books has served the long-time purpose of bringing up to date what was formerly the weakest single feature of our book collection. [Annual Report, 1943, p. 13]

Youthful Library users at the Canal branch service desk, March, 1939.

To many Orleanians, the Main Library is still associated only with the loan of books. However, each year more of our fellow citizens are learning that the Information Desk is a source of assistance with problems of many kinds. [Annual Report, 1943, p. 12]

A patron of the old Main Library at Lee Circle ponders a difficult reference problem.

The international nature of New Orleans and the growing number of multilingual citizens in the city, prompted a search for special funds to increase the foreign language collection. With a grant of $450.00 from the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library and $1731.00 from the Hernsheim Fund, the library collection in foreign languages was augmented to 15,000 volumes. Works by outstanding contemporary and classical authors in fiction, social science, and poetry were purchased. Although major areas of purchase included works in French, German, and Spanish, books in Greek, Italian, Polish, Hebrew, Serb, and the Scandinavian tongues were also added. [Annual Report, 1968, p. 2]

Reference and other library services are described briefly in this informational brochure from the 1940s. [Herbert S. Livaudais Donation, in memory of Samuel H. Livaudais, Sr.]

Jericho, a project to break the barriers of service to the Spanish-speaking, the Black community, and the elderly, was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, of Library Services and Construction Act Funds, administered by the Louisiana State Library.... At the New Orleans Public Library, a Foreign Language Division was established, complete with bilingual personnel, with the vast majority of books, periodicals, and newspapers in Spanish. [Annual Report, 1972, p. 3]

This very simple service brochure, probably from the late 1940s, describes several of the services and collections available to New Orleanians at the Public Library.

Three Departments of the Main Library were moved the first part of 1963 in order to help us give better service to the public.... The Louisiana Department was moved to the third floor and made a closed reference department. Research work may now be done in the quiet atmosphere necessary for concentration. The Art and Music Department was moved to the second floor where its collections are now accessible to people who come to see the many displays of art and related subjects on the bridge. The Fiction Department was moved to the main floor with the result that many patrons do not have to use either the elevator or the stairs during their visits to the Library. Our public is enthusiastic about the changes. [Annual Report, 1963]

In the early 1950s, the Library used this map to direct patrons to the various service points in the Lee Circle building.

The Martha Gasquet Westfeldt Art Collection, donated by Mrs. Westfeldt, brought Library patrons Oriental ceramics dating back to 200 B.C., a related collection of art reference books, and a fund to inaugurate a long-awaited service--a circulating collection of framed art reproductions. The sixty-nine prints purchased during the year were in constant demand, with long reserve lists for many of the pictures. [Annual Report, 1952]

Reference service at NOPL and other libraries around the world was revolutionized by the introduction of microforms. Microfiche cards such as the one shown in this photograph provide inexpensive access to vast storehouses of reference material that many library systems would never be able to acquire in the original.

It was obvious that during 1957 your Library's long-time role as the community's education-information headquarters for all ages was filling an increasingly urgent need, to an ever widening number of New Orleanians. Fact was replacing fiction, in a world of Sputniks, and Library demands reflected the sharply changing emphasis--both qualitatively and quantitatively. [Annual Report, 1957]

The Art and Music Division, ca. 1959, before its relocation to the Library's second floor.

An important trend is the increased demand for information relating to specific problems of business, commerce, economics, industry. Each year, many more people are turning to the Library for assistance with their daily work--whether petroleum or potatoes. They represent the largest corporation and the smallest part-time project, and they find that the Library s collection of trade journals, government documents, indexes to manufacturing, and directories are indispensable assets. They also demonstrate the need for a strong central department of business and technology with library materials and staff selected to serve the economic interests of Orleanians. [Annual Report, 1954]

In 1974 a consortium of sixteen libraries in the New Orleans area received $155,610 in federal money to fund a reference and referral service for the region. Known as SEALLINC (Southeast Louisiana Library Network Cooperative), the system's referral center was housed at NOPL's Central Library where a separate staff (shown here in a typically frenzied pose) processed requests from member libraries and routed books and other reference material to the appropriate end users.

In general, it was decided that the Adult Department--which had carried a heavy burden of reference, reader's advisory, and circulation work with great success for many years--should be divided into several service units with more specialized objectives. At the same time, it was also felt that the fine City Archives Department provided a splendid nucleus for a department containing all reference materials about both New Orleans and Louisiana, and that the records of the La Hache Music Library and the framed prints of the Westfeldt Art Library, both housed at the Milton H. Latter Library, would serve more efficiently if they were supplemented by books and made an integral part of the new Main Library. There was also, of course, the compelling need for establishing a special department for Business and Science--an objective of many years, and one becoming more pressing each year, not only from commercial interests but also from the tremendous emphasis in high school and college curricula and adult education courses. [Annual Report, 1958-1959, p. 2]

Service desks at branch libraries served both circulation and reference needs. Shown here are the desks at the Gentilly and Napoleon branches.

In compliance with an act of the Louisiana Legislature, all books in German have been withdrawn from every department. [Annual Report, 1916-1919, p. 11]

One of the best sources for up-to-date information on a multitude of reference subjects has always been the Library's periodical collection. This photograph shows students using the old periodical desk on Central Library's first floor sometime prior to the establishment of the present-day Periodicals, Arts and Recreation Division.

... it is pleasing to note the increasing use of reference materials in our library. Unlike the New York Public Library our reference rooms are not overcrowded by the under-graduate students and our reference work is largely with the general reader. [Annual Report, 1926, p. 13]

Over the years, New Orleans Public Library staff has answered reference questions for thousands of out-of-town researchers through the mails. The writer of this 1965 letter, Gordon Hendricks, later wrote a full-length biography of Eakins as well as works on Winslow Homer and Eadweard Muybridge, "father of the motion picture." NOPL still provides such service to researchers, especially in the Louisiana Division. Most of the searching done today, however, is based on a fee schedule approved by the Library Board of Directors.

If the success of an institution is to be measured by the service it gives and the number it serves--and surely service to the people of the city must be the real aim and purpose of a public library--then the past year was the most satisfactory and the most successful in the history of the New Orleans Public Library.... In ever-increasing numbers, people in all walks of life, used the Reference Department to find information on business problems, for genealogical research, in the preparation of speeches, radio talks, advertising, ball costumes, etc., and for studies in schools and universities. [Annual Report, 1931, p. 7]

A capacity crowd of readers makes use of the general reference collection on the first floor of the Central Library.

The United States Library for the Blind has been established in the New Orleans Public Library. The credit for this outstanding achievement is due to Dr. Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress. The New Orleans Public Library has now thousands of volumes in Moon and Braille Types, as well as disks for the Talking Book, which we are circulating to the blind who reside within the territory half way between New Orleans and Atlanta, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Dallas. [Annual Report, 1932-1934, p. 11]

Reference service to the local business community has long been a priority at New Orleans Public Library. Here Ellen Tilger, former head of the Business and Science Division, is shown providing one-on-one assistance to a library patron.

A file of the organizations in New Orleans has been compiled containing the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of the officers of the organization. Information is kept up-to-date. This file proved the source of many telephone questions. The Community Chest found it helpful in planning its campaign for 1940. The Young Men's Business Club used it in preparation for the Spring Fiesta and many other organizations and individuals have made use of it. [Annual Report, 1939, p. 15]

The cover from the first edition of the Louisiana Division's guide to its genealogical holdings. The initial printing of this pamphlet was sold out by 1986 when a second edition was prepared and published by the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library. A new edition in presently undergoing final revision and should be available by the end of this year.

Types of patrons may be summarized as follows: Visitors to city for directions and local facts, newspaper writers (mainly telephone calls), ladies from study groups and cultural clubs, book reviewers, users of mechanical and trade handbooks, and research workers on the Federal Writers Project. [Annual Report, 1940, p. 12]

The old Information and Reference desk at the Central Library served patrons well until the demands of the computer age made it obsolete.

Work on the two indexing projects, "Louisiana biography and portraits", and "Selected articles in New Orleans and Louisiana magazines" were continued throughout the year, and a new venture started, namely the indexing and assigning of subject headings to the Southern Historical Society publications, American Historical Association reports, and the Louisiana Planter. Routine work and typing on these projects are done by W.P.A. assistants. [Annual Report, 1940, p. 12]

The Foreign Language Division provided specialized reference services to the city's Latin American population for more than twenty years.

The Haspel Doll Collection, installed June 9, attracted numerous persons. This group of 500 dolls from practically every nation is perhaps the finest in the South. Its value to students of geography and costume has been outstanding. Through the generosity of the Haspel family the dolls are to be kept in the Library permanently, or until either of the contracting parties desires a change of plans. [Annual Report, 1941, p. 7]

This Times-Picayune article describes NOPL reference services at the beginning of the 1980s.

Early in the year the Library received governmental designation as an Official War Information Center. This Center was shortly thereafter recognized by the local Office of Civilian Defense and began a cooperative program designed to give New Orleans a clearing house for official information on a national and local scale. [Annual Report, 1942, p. 7]

New Orleans Public Library provided on-site reference services to the mass of media representatives covering the 1988 Republican National Convention in the Crescent City. A similar NOPL reference desk served visiting reporters at the National Football League's Superbowl in 1990.

Information and book service to patrons have been the dual objectives of the Adult Department staff, and every major issue and problem in the world or community has had its effect on their daily task. To those thousands of Orleanians who have asked "Where can we get the answer?"--the Library has answered "Here," and in person, by telephone, and by letter the questions have come in greater quantity and variety than ever before. [Annual Report, 1943, p. 13]

"Consumer Connections" was designed to serve as a quick source for referrals to providers of essential services to the community.

In an attempt to offset the loss in circulation of technical books--those for the mechanic, the ship-fitter, the welder--which was noted throughout the system, "a technology alcove" was set up in the large circular end of the Reference Room. [Annual Report, 1943, p. 13]

The Artists Information Bureau operated out of the New Orleans Public Library's Community Relations Office from 1975 to 1980. The Bureau's services included "a reference bank of community artists, professional service and counseling for persons in the arts, educational programs in the arts, slide shows, seminars and workshops geared to the needs of the individual artist in the New Orleans area." In 1980, however, the AIB fell victim to city budget cuts. The City Archives holds a complete set of Arts Information, the AIB's monthly publication full of news about the contemporary art scene in New Orleans during the late 1970s.

The total number of informational requests filled by telephone, personal contact, and correspondence was 44,041--a highly specialized service requiring a staff trained in professional library techniques and familiar with the potentialities of the book collection. [Annual Report, 1944, p. 9]

In addition to its role of providing books and information to local libraries for the use of their patrons, SEALLINC also provided instruction to area librarians to make them better suppliers of reference services.

Cox Cable New Orleans through the Arts & Entertainment Network, donated to the library "The A&E Library Theatre." The donation consists of a 20" TV monitor, a videocassette recorder, a collection of six A&E program cassettes varying from classic dramas to historical documentaries, comedy, performing arts and five companion books. [Annual Report, 1990, p. 4]

The "Businessman's Bookshelf" was one of many tools used by the Business and Science Division to advertise its services to the New Orleans business community.

The inability of our City Council to provide the money needed for the enlargement of the reference room was a great disappointment to us. For two years the further development of this department has been impossible on account of the smallness of the room. Students who are repeatedly turned away because there are no seats for them soon become discouraged and do not return to the library. [Annual Report, 1911, p. 8]

New Orleans Public Library entered the realm of online database reference assistance with its Lagniappe service in the early 1980s.

We have expended much time and energy in the effort to complete [the United States document] collection and fill in all gaps. We have met with considerable success in this undertaking and I believe we now have a more complete collection of United States Government documents than any other library south of Washington. [Annual report, 1911, p. 11]

Reference librarians in the Information and Reference Division answering both in-house and telephone reference questions.

April 1996 marks the first anniversary of NUTRIAS, New Orleans Public Library's most recent venture into the world of online reference service. NUTRIAS (New Orleans' User friendly Technologically correct Research and Information Access System) is our site on the Internet's World Wide Web. We have NUTRIAS in New Orleans while many other parts of the world are still dependent on gophers to provide Internet access to information resources. Here is a print out of the NUTRIAS home page as it appears to users of the Netscape Navigator 2.0 web browser.