UNO Library Collection of Orleans Parish School Board Records Celebrates 30 Years

bilboChief BJ Bilbo, head security officer of John McDonogh No. 7, presents historians with a photograph that had been abandoned post-Katrina. Photo courtesy UNO Earl K. Long Library.

Sixteen hundred linear feet is the length of five football fields. That's how much space is required to store the University of New Orleans' vast and ever-growing special collection of Orleans Parish School Board records.

"It may be the largest school board collection in the United States," said Connie Zeanah Atkinson, UNO professor of history and acting director of the library's Herman and Ethel Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies. "We can't find a larger one. But the thing is if you're studying education, anywhere, this is interesting to you."

The Orleans Parish School Board Collection was initiated in 1982 by then-New Orleans Public School staff member Al Kennedy in cooperation with the UNO History Department and Earl K. Long Library's Special Collections staff. A joint agreement between the school board and UNO signed February 24, 1983 named the Earl K. Long Library as the official repository for the school district's historical records. Housed within the collection today are more than 170 years of school board records, rules and regulations, legal files for landmark education cases, an oral history collection, school newsletters, yearbooks and 4,000 photographs, some dating to the 19th century.

A celebration of the collection's 30-year residency in the library is scheduled at 6 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, in the Special Collections Room on the fourth floor of UNO's Earl K. Long Library. The event, which includes a reception, will be hosted by the Friends of the UNO Earl K. Long Library and Herman and Ethel Midlo Center for New Orleans Studies.

Historians see unending possibilities for the collection. Researchers can glean insights into 19th century thoughts on corporal punishment, prayer in schools, educating women, educating African Americans and other issues that still surface today, said Atkinson. Researchers outside the U.S. can learn from the materials too, she said, adding that early writings on educating children during Civil War occupation bears some relevance to scholars and educators considering education of students in post-war Iraq.

Policymakers can gain valuable insights to the evolution of the school board, curriculums, finances, rules, regulations and policy decisions, while any astute researcher will note the importance of the school board during the 19th century, Atkinson said.

"Movers and shakers, the heads of the city, came to the school board meetings," Atkinson said. "They knew that the schools were important to economics and things of the day. They would walk in and vote...They obviously saw the importance of the schools in what the city would become."

"You have so many individuals who have come to work in our schools post Katrina and I think sometimes understanding the things that have happened can be very useful," said Kennedy. "The pace of 20th century life can be very stressful, but I think that if you can find the time to be introspective it can be very helpful."

Kennedy, who received a master of arts and doctoral degree in urban studies from UNO, has served as an adjunct instructor at the University since 1999, teaching American history, Louisiana history and music history courses. He started amassing old public school photographs and records haphazardly in the late 1970s and soon found himself driving around on his lunch hour and on weekends to retrieve and store elements of personal collections, as information spread word of mouth.

He quickly realized that there was no official place for retiring teachers or New Orleans residents to store or archive valuable photographs and records, the history instructor said. He approached the university and since 1983 has been helping to build the collection, even braving abandoned buildings post-Katrina in hazardous materials gear, then sending rescued items to mold remediation services so they could be properly archived by the library without contaminating other items.

Florence Jumonville, Louisiana and special collections librarian, believes that the Orleans Parish School Board Collection is the most consulted of the more than 400 collections in the Earl K. Long Library and that scholars "have found the archives of the Orleans Parish School Board indispensable to their research." With the help of federal grants, Jumonville is creating a bibliography of citations of the collection in articles, theses, dissertations and books.

Students and scholars are not the only ones to seek out the school board collection, said Jumonville, adding that area residents and their families look up the records to gain information and to evoke memories of their school days.

The historians hope to promote awareness of the collection and encourage more graduates and veteran staff, teachers and policymakers to contribute materials to the collection.

"Our mission is to write better histories of New Orleans," said Atkinson, "and by doing this we are helping people to write better histories."


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The Orleans Parish School Board records
UNO's Earl K. Long Library