I entered the magnificent stucco complex that contains the Biloxi Public Library (BPL) through a lovely, partially arched colonnade. Separated from the Civic Center by a huge brick courtyard strung with fairy lights and sometimes used for balls, I knew from informative introductory emails from Charline Longino, the Head Librarian (since retired, Sharon Davis is now in charge), that the 22,000′ building’s early 20th century design helps ease the pain of losing so much historic architecture during Hurricane Katrina.
She’d also told me that a local film company and dentist had both used BPL in background shots. Perhaps a not uncommon use for this stunning part of the country as later that day my husband and I stumbled onto another movie set at a sea side restaurant!
It’s warm outside, but it’s still winter, so the two delicate pink camellias floating in a lily pad bowl at the front desk hinting of spring’s imminent arrival are a nice touch as I meet Charlie in person and get an enthusiastic tour of a place she obviously loves.
One of four sites in Biloxi and part of the nine branch Harrison County Library System (HCLS), which, with help from FEMA, has four new buildings to replace those lost to Katrina, BPL holds the Local History and Genealogy Department (LH).
Though unfortunately heavily damaged by the 2005 catastrophe, they are constantly adding materials and the 2500 square feet are packed with movable storage, an old card catalog with cemetery plot data, microfiche and an oversize printer for making posters. As would be expected from those who watch over realia, it’s draped with collectables: a framed fleur de lis banner from a Krewe, prints of antebellum plantations, a cabinet full of old glass bottles, a vase holding paper flower staffs. At Carnival processions men in tuxedos holding these sticks exchange them for kisses.
A Christmas tree is decked with the traditional purple, gold and green garlands and they have a plum hued book cart to continue the Mardi Gras theme. LH has three employees who bring their special knowledge to the masses by partnering with other organizations to give historical lectures.
Including these three workers, BPL has four full time and three part time staff while the system has sixty.
Opened in 2011, this location is the fourth iteration of BPL. The third was flooded in three feet of water by Katrina and is now a green space, though luck and sturdy bygone construction practices allowed their 1920’s setting to weather the storm. The original BPL was housed in an 1800’s cottage and around the early 20th century became the first free public library in MS. It also survived and is still in use by the Dusti Bongé Art Foundation.
Conveniently situated downtown near a large park and two blocks away from the pristine sands of the Gulf, the city chose and built the structure so HCLS owns the contents but not the shell. Gorgeous oak slat sound absorbing ceilings and enormous beams gleam above, lit by a wagon wheel chandelier and a clerestory that lets in the sunshine.
This month’s exhibition is an array of shots highlighting the region’s birds. Another case features a dress and wooden shoes – attire worn by the French settlers (the district has a very mixed ethnicity due to the fishing industry) in the olden days of New Biloxi Colony. The shoes were perfect for all the mud. Across the aisle, a display contains Mardi Gras memorabilia from the Hunt family (Kevin was Captain of the Carnival for eleven years) such as a bejeweled scepter and tiara and romantic photographs of sophisticated men in capes and women in floor-sweeping gowns.
The Young Adult Area has bar stools at a counter and along with the adults and juveniles they have manga and graphic novels.
BPL’s classroom allows 10-15 students and is equipped with computers. The meeting space seats up to fifty and has a digital projector.
Some sections have motion detection lighting that turns on as you walk by. Tables have plugs and attractive lamps and there are Pacs in the stacks, easy chairs with tray tables and long banquettes for those who always opt for the booth in a restaurant. Curved paperback spindles look like hanging plants from a distance and the Friends have a permanent book sale room, divided into nonfiction, fiction, DVDs, CDs, magazines and even genealogy.
The facility has 40,000 items and outside there’s a wheelchair ramp and a drive up return slot where the 190,000 or so county residents can drop off materials (and they can borrow from any HCLS locale).
In the Kid’s Room, light streams in through panes in a corner just right for telling stories while youngsters sit on a rug of the world bordered by adolescents in native costumes clasping hands.
Vibrant shelf ends have holders showcasing face out titles and chains of pastel hearts adorn the portable AV carts. Tots can work puzzles or plop down on blue bean shaped puffs, lounge on cushy geometric shapes in primary colors or peruse a volume on a wavy bench. A bulletin board with the Shrove Tuesday festivities’ slogan “Let the Good Times Roll” looms over all and stacks are topped with holiday shaded beads and star wands stuffed into potted plants. A sign advertises a visit from a southern MS pet therapy group for Sit Stay Read and book audio combos hang off a happy gray insect stand with springy antennae.
I chatted for a bit with Elizabeth Catalano, Children’s (and Young Adult) Librarian who, though too modest to mention it, was recently honored with the Red Rose award for her efforts educating Biloxi youths.
February programs for tots include a pre-Lenten parade, Valentine’s Day party and Chinese New Year with sheep (since 2015 is the year of these creatures) and BPL offers storytimes and after school programs like Let’s Go Green while other HCLS branches have Tai Chi, yoga and needlework sessions, introduction to software classes, movie nights and AARP tax help.
There’s wifi, 12 PCs and 20 in house use laptops. Databases come courtesy of MS’s Magnolia alliance and they have LearningExpress and TumbleBooks, Freading ebooks and are looking into eaudiobooks.
The website has a graphics heavy children’s catalog and the facebook page has promotions for art shows and lots of pictures of happy kids celebrating and reading to pets.
My favorite area is by the magazines where curved upholstered seating with wood dividers looks out onto pretty palms and foliage.
What a pleasant addition to the community and a great resource for the people of this beautiful stretch of land.