Courtesy of Rachel Shin

The New Haven Free Public Library, or NHFPL, hosted a packed virtual Mardi Gras celebration, during which it presented its Noah Webster award and announced its upcoming facilities and hours expansion plans.

On Tuesday evening, the NHFPL held its annual benefit via YouTube and Facebook livestream, featuring two keynote speakers: author Honorée Fanonne Jeffers and poet Reginald Dwayne Betts. The Library also presented its Noah Webster community and advocacy award to Karen Pritzker and City Librarian John Jessen and announced happenings on the Library’s horizon, including expanded Sunday hours and the upcoming opening of the NHFPL’s new Stetson Branch in the Dixwell Community Q House. 

“The poet Rita Dove has described libraries so beautifully as an arena of possibility, a window into the soul and a door to the world,” said Lauren Anderson, president of the NHFPL Board of Directors. “It’s a great description for our libraries here in New Haven, that make so much possible for so many people.”

The event kicked off with an expression of gratitude from NHFPL President Michael Morand to the public for its donations to the new Stetson Branch, opening later this month. The recently concluded Stetson Branch campaign, which began in 2017, raised over $2 million for new furnishings, collections and the library’s permanent endowment. 

The Stetson Branch will feature a Makerspace with a myriad of technological amenities, a tea lounge and several study areas, Jessen said. There will also be a young minds and family learning center, Moran said. He thanked Karen Pritzker and the Seedlings Foundation for providing the launch capital for the Stetson campaign. 

For her contributions to the library and city, NHFPL awarded Pritzker its Noah Webster award for community support and advocacy. Pritzker funded librarian trainings throughout Connecticut and donated a $250,000 challenge grant to the Stetson campaign.

“Simone Weil, the French philosopher, said that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” said Roxanne Coady, independent bookseller and a longtime friend of Pritzker’s. “It is that attention that Karen brings to her work … she knows that libraries at their core will make the future and make people understand their possibility for a future.”

The bulk of the event featured a conversation between keynote speakers Honorée Fanonne Jeffers and Reginald Dwayne Betts. Jeffers is the author of the NY Times bestseller “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” and Betts is an award-winning poet and 2021 MacArthur Fellow. 

The writers discussed race in literature, their publications, books and upbringings. According to Jeffers, reading has had a profound impact on her life and libraries were a haven for her as a child.

“The library was a place, when I was a little girl, where I just felt special,” Jeffers said. “I grew up partially in Durham, North Carolina and then Atlanta, Georgia. Things were still de facto segregated when I was growing up in Durham, and so our library was the Black library. And so when I would go into the library, the librarians would… save books for me… and they made me feel special, like a superstar.”

During Betts and Jeffers’ hour-long conversation, the livestream’s chat lit up with comments from the public, which momentarily popped across the screen. “​I’m loving this conversational flow! Books bring us together,” commenter Shelley Quiala wrote. Similar cheery messages punctuated the virtual meet-up, affording the digital space an aura of congregation.

Morand made another announcement that caused the chat to erupt in excitement. The new mayoral budget will facilitate the first steps toward expanding the NHFPL’s hours to Sundays, he said. 

To this, Elsie Chapman’s comment “​For YEARS I have longed for Sunday hours at the library. Can’t believe it’s now going from a dream to reality. Go NHFPL!!!” flashed across the screen, accompanied by celebratory emojis from other commenters.  

Feb. 21 marked the NHFPL’s 135th birthday. It opened in 1887.

Rachel Shin was Audience Editor of the YDN. Before that, she was a City beat reporter, covering nonprofits and social services. She is a junior in Silliman College majoring in English.