64 Parishes

Essae Martha Culver

Essae Culver was a pioneering librarian and educator in an era when library service was beyond the ken of most rural Americans.

Essae Martha Culver

Courtesy of State Library of Louisiana.

Librarian Essae Culver helping a young woman at the Jefferson Parish library in Grand Isle Louisiana.

Essae Culver was a pioneering librarian and educator in an era when library service was beyond the reach of most rural Americans. In 1925 she arrived from California to spearhead the establishment of public libraries in Louisiana. As executive secretary of the then-fledgling Louisiana Library Commission and, later, the first state librarian of Louisiana, she developed a program that spread public libraries throughout the state, and served as a model for other states and nations. In addition, Culver was instrumental in instituting the library school at Louisiana State University and the School Library Division in the state department of education.

Early Life

Essae Martha Culver was born in Emporia, Kansas, on November 15, 1882, to Joseph Franklin Culver and Mary Murphy Culver, the youngest in a family of four boys and four girls. Essae (her unusual name was pronounced “essay”) later recalled that “religion, education, and music” strongly influenced her life. In 1905 she graduated from Pomona College in Claremont, California, with a major in piano and voice. Employment in the college library, however, sparked an interest in librarianship and influenced her to make it her career. Culver attended New York State Library School in 1907–08, leaving before completing the certification program to work at the Salem (OR) Public Library. From 1912 to 1925, she held various positions at the California State Library and in county libraries, becoming familiar with the reading needs of rural populations.

Starting Parish Libraries in Louisiana

Culver’s experience with rural librarianship led to her selection, in 1925, to direct a project to establish public libraries in rural Louisiana. Funded by a grant of $50,000 from the Carnegie Corporation, it was intended to create a model of modern library service. As such, it would demonstrate the value of such programs, both to other states and Louisianans, who would be expected to provide funding when grant support ended. In a vigorous competition with other states, Louisiana was chosen because “the people were enthusiastic and unbelievably hospitable, the ground was not encumbered by any structure which must be removed to make way for a newer edifice, and laws had been enacted so that money alone was needed to set the wheels in motion.”

Culver recommended a plan modeled on one in California. It included a large central library in Baton Rouge with a branch at every parish seat. Rotating collections of fifty to three hundred books, housed in a store or other convenient location, would be in every hamlet. Reading materials would be available to even the most isolated residents of the parish.

On December 17, 1926, Louisiana’s first parish library demonstration opened in northeastern Richland Parish, followed by the southwestern Jefferson Davis Parish library demonstration on February 2, 1927. Culver hoped to show that the same model could work in two culturally diverse and geographically distant centers of development. That spring, however, the Flood of 1927 inundated much of Louisiana and paralyzed progress. To avoid losing momentum, the Carnegie Foundation extended its funding for two years. Citizens of Jefferson Davis Parish, fearing the cost of flood recovery, resoundingly voted down the library tax proposal, handing Culver her first defeat. She would not have many. By 1928, recovery had progressed enough for activity on the library to resume. After a 1937 study determined that parish libraries reached rural residents more effectively than did school libraries, parishes queued up for demonstrations.

Culver has been credited with “originating . . . a demonstration method which has greatly influenced library development both in this country and abroad.” Five factors made the system exemplary. First, its method, which was based on experience and the requirement of financial support, succeeded. Second, the model was adaptable, easily duplicated in other types of libraries. Third, it was innovative, employing techniques such as needs assessment decades earlier than other libraries. Fourth, the model actively involved the citizenry, giving them a stake in the final project. Finally, it had the guidance of Essae Culver. Under her leadership, the state library agency provided people, wherever they lived, with the books they sought, “shift[ing] . . . emphasis from the importance of book ownership to that of book use.”

Later Career and Achievements

Culver was elected president of the Louisiana Library Association in 1928, and the organization named a distinguished service award for her in 1964. She was president of the League of Library Commissions and the Southwestern Library Association. She was also the seventh woman president—the first from a southern state—of the American Library Association, which presented her with the Joseph W. Lippincott Award for distinguished librarianship in 1959. Her alma mater, Pomona College, conferred an honorary doctorate, as did Louisiana State University. At both schools, she was the first woman to be thus honored. The citation from LSU noted that her “influence on Louisiana libraries has been all pervasive.”

Conversely, in Culver’s personal life the influence of libraries was all pervasive. Though she remained close to members of her extended family, cultivated a wide circle of devoted friends, and enjoyed leisure pursuits, Culver never married or had children. She once claimed that her hobby was mountain-climbing, referring not to topography but to the obstacles she had to surmount in developing Louisiana’s network of parish libraries. As New Orleans States-Item columnist Charles Dufour wrote when Culver retired in 1962, “If you would see her monument, look about Louisiana.”

By that time, the state library agency had grown from a one-person office with 3,000 books to a headquarters staffed by more than fifty, administering 440,000 books. All but nine of Louisiana’s sixty-three rural parishes operated flourishing libraries, and Culver would live to see Jefferson Davis Parish establish the last one in 1968. She died in Baton Rouge on January 3, 1973, of respiratory failure. Her long career and many accomplishments reflected her belief that “talkers are not doers; and that deeds and not words will provide an opportunity for librarians to work together toward the goal of freedom and opportunity to read for all the people.”