Brought To You By Michael Wynne

Would you believe that Alexandria had one of the first public libraries in America? Only three decades after the founder of the American Public Library system, Benjamin Franklin, passed on, the “Alexandria Library Society” was granted an official charter in 1823 by the Louisiana Legislature. The leading citizens of Alexandria had accumulated a library of 3,000 books consisting of the “best literature.” Judge Josiah Stoddard Johnston (1784-1833) was the first President of this society. This library collection was destroyed in May of 1864 when most of the city burned.

After the Civil War, Eugene Rene “E. R.” Biossat (1819-1880) informally re-established the library in his downtown newspaper office in the mid to late 1860s. A former mayor of Alexandria, “E. R.” is best known in history as the editor for 3 decades of the Alexandria Democrat newspaper, the predecessor of the Alexandria Town Talk. E. R. started collecting books to use mostly as reference works for the newspaper and housed them in the Democrat’s office. Friends and customers started borrowing the books from him and this practice spread rapidly. Soon, people started also to give him books and the collection became public.

After E. R.’s death and the folding of the newspaper, the collection was donated by E. R.’s widow to the Town Talk’s newspaper office so the library could continue unabated. The library continued to grow in size and in use so by 1904 “the Alexandria Public Library Association” donated all of the books to Alexandria Central School (also known as “Alexandria High School,” not to be confused with present day ASH). This long-demolished red brick public school building was located where the Rapides Parish Courthouse is now located and the school faced 7th Street (now Foisy Street). In a February 1904 article from the Town Talk, the article noted about this collection, ” … the books will be placed in charge of the teachers of the school. There are many fine works in this library — books that will greatly benefit all who read them, and of great value to students that are in the higher branches. The library has been stored in the Town Talk building for years, waiting for just such an opportunity as this, to put the books where they will do the public the most good, and where they are sure to be preserved and protected.”

When the first Bolton High School was built and opened on Beauregard Street in 1915, the book collection was moved to Bolton High intact. Eleven years later when the “new” (now existing) second Bolton High School opened on Vance Avenue in 1926, the collection was moved one final time. This magnificent, irreplaceable collection now has sat behind glass in a place of honor in the 2nd floor school library for 98 years!

The book collection is truly a one of a kind collection. Perusing the collection tells one what 19th century readers loved to read: European histories, the classics, biographies and letters of our founding fathers, geography, exploration, Civil War and the like. The owners of the books often signed their own books and there are many signatures of Alexandria community leaders from the Civil War and Reconstruction period including E. R. Biossat himself. The earliest inscription that this columnist found was from 1858 though there are books two hundred years old!

From this columnist’s research, I could not find another library of books of this kind that are basically intact from as far back as the 1870s anywhere in the U. S. Not only that, my research revealed that several books might be worth thousands of dollars and at least one book is the only known copy anywhere!

It is my sincere hope that Bolton High School and the Rapides Parish School Board treat this treasury of books as just that – a real treasure, for future generations to enjoy and to take are of.


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